U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates promised today to hold North Korea accountable for selling or transferring nuclear material outside its borders, providing the first clear expression of the Obama administration’s thinking on a vexing foreign policy challenge.
A succession of U.S. presidents have tried to persuade the reclusive government to give up its nuclear arms, and Gates made it clear that President Obama was open to using diplomacy to end the threat.
But he also drew a distinction between the danger posed by a North Korea that possessed nuclear weapons and one that sold them to other countries or groups. Spreading its nuclear technology would invite the swiftest and most forceful U.S. response, he said.
“The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and its allies,” Gates said in a speech at a security conference in Singapore. “And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.”
North Korea conducted a nuclear test and has made a number of missile tests in recent days, including one Friday. U.S. officials and their allies have reacted by denouncing the regime in Pyongyang and beginning consultations on new United Nations sanctions.
But Gates was more specific. Though painting its nuclear ambitions as a security concern for the region, he described the possibility of proliferation as a worry for the United States and the rest of the world.
He did not specify consequences, but his language hinted at a military reaction by echoing the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration warnings that those who harbor terrorists would be “held accountable.” Those warnings were followed by a U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Gates’ speech also may serve as a message to countries and militant groups that are potential customers of North Korean weaponry. Past customers are believed to include Iran, Syria, Libya and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Gates’ appearance at the annual security conference had powerful diplomatic overtones. After his address, Gates was planning to meet with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to discuss security concerns. He met with a Chinese government delegation this morning.
Those meetings are designed to reinforce U.S. security commitments to its allies and to encourage an expanded Chinese effort to rein in its belligerent neighbor. Gates is being joined in the meetings by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gates, in his address, said Obama was receptive to dialogue with North Korea and had pledged to work with “tyrannies that unclench their fists.” But Gates said Pyongyang’s response to U.S. overtures was disappointing.
“The United States and our allies are open to dialogue, but we will not bend to pressure or provocation,” he said. “And on this count, North Korea’s latest reply to our overtures isn’t exactly something we would characterize as helpful or constructive.”
In a question-and-answer session after the speech, Gates compared the North Korean nuclear program to that of Iran. Both issues require concerted approaches and tougher sanctions, he said.
“For there to be a peaceful solution requires multilateral efforts and a willingness to impose real sanctions that bring real pain,” he said.
And though the recent weapons tests threaten a “dark future,” Gates added, “I don’t think the North Korean nuclear program represents a direct threat to the United States.”
Proliferation of nuclear material by North Korea is hardly a new concern. In recent days, U.S. officials, including Gates, have voiced concerns about the possibility that Pyongyang could seek to sell its nuclear technology. They have noted that North Korea has a record of spreading its missile and other weapons technology around the world.
Gates has played down any imminent threat posed by North Korea, saying Friday that the Obama administration did not consider the weapons tests of the last week a “crisis.”
Gates has said he is in favor of increased U.N.-mandated inspections of North Korean weapons facilities. But the Pentagon is less enthusiastic about searches of North Korean ships against Pyongyang’s will.
At the United Nations, officials continued to negotiate a draft resolution calling for the enforcement of widely ignored sanctions imposed after North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test. The sanctions include further limits on shipments of arms and luxury goods.
North Korea threatened to retaliate if punitive U.N. sanctions were imposed for its latest nuclear test, saying its tests are conducted in self-defense, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, international nonproliferation officials said atmospheric tests to confirm that Monday’s blast was a nuclear test may be completed next week.
The security conference in Singapore, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, has become a key platform for U.S. Defense secretaries to outline their approach to Asia.
Gates portrayed the United States as vigorously engaged throughout the region, but with an emphasis both on military security and diplomatic outreach.
“What we have seen in the U.S. approach to Asia in recent years -- and what I believe we will see in the future -- is a very real shift that reflects new thinking in the U.S. defense strategy overall, a shift toward a re-balanced mix of the so-called hard and soft elements of national power,” Gates said.
In recent years, conference addresses by U.S. Defense secretaries have been aimed squarely at China. In Gates’ address, the call for greater Chinese military transparency and dialogue, often the focus of past speeches, received only a cursory mention.
The George W. Bush administration often was criticized for eschewing multilateral approaches to security problems. Gates made it clear that the new administration has no such reservation.
Challenges such as terrorism, economic turmoil, pandemic diseases and piracy require efforts by groups of nations, he said.
“What these challenges all have in common is that they cannot simply be overcome by one, or even two countries,” he said, “no matter how wealthy or powerful.”