- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

BEIJING (AP) — North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles poses a direct threat to the United States, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday, a blunt assessment of the risk posed by an erratic dictatorship that considers the United States its foremost enemy.

North Korea will have a limited ability to deliver a weapon to U.S. shores within five years using intercontinental ballistic missiles, Mr. Gates predicted. North Korea has threatened to test such missiles and already has conducted underground nuclear tests that prove it has manufactured at least rudimentary nuclear weapons.

“With the North Koreans’ continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States, and we have to take that into account,” Mr. Gates said.

The risk of war on the Korean Peninsula is also rising because South Koreans are fed up with provocation and harassment from the North, Mr. Gates said.

“We consider this a situation of real concern, and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement,” he said.

North Korea is accused of sinking a South Korean Navy ship last spring, killing 46 sailors, and it fired artillery at a disputed island in November, killing four South Koreans.

The South’s “tolerance for not responding” is nearly gone, Mr. Gates told reporters in China, which is North Korea’s only ally.

“Clearly, if there is another provocation, there will be pressure on the … South Korean government to react,” Mr. Gates said.

Mr. Gates said he thanked Chinese President Hu Jintao and others he saw here for reining in North Korea and asked China to keep leaning on the fellow communist state.

Mr. Gates is in China in part to broaden military cooperation between China and the United States. On Tuesday, the second date of Mr. Gates‘ visit, China conducted its first known test flight of its new stealth fighter plane. The test apparently was intended to send the message that Beijing is responding to calls from the United States and others to be more transparent about its defense modernization and future intentions.

North Korea depends on China for aid and protection, but China’s influence over the inward-looking nation is limited. China props up the insolvent North largely out of fear that a collapsed state would unsettle the entire North Asian region.

U.S. officials have said North Korea’s increasingly bellicose behavior over the past year is probably part of a plan to establish the military bona fides of leader Kim Jong-il’s son as his chosen successor. North Korea regularly denounces the United States and accuses it of wanting to destroy the country, but the North poses the most direct threat to its neighbor South Korea, a U.S. ally.

War on the Korean Peninsula could involve the United States apart from any North Korean ability to deliver a nuclear weapon across the Pacific. The United States has 29,000 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the Korean War and is pledged to help defend Seoul.

Mr. Gates will visit Seoul on Friday for talks on the North Korean threat.

North Korea has pleaded for talks in recent days and has proposed holding a working-level dialogue on Jan. 27 to prepare for higher-level government discussions and Red Cross talks on joint economic projects on Feb. 1.

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