SINGAPORE | Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Saturday said North Korea had a stark choice — to remain a pariah or “chart a new course” — but suggested that the Obama administration would not return to a policy of trying to bribe Pyongyang to stop building nuclear weapons.
In a closely watched speech before Asian defense ministers, military chiefs and diplomats five days after North Korea tested a nuclear device for the second time, Mr. Gates issued a tough warning to the reclusive state.
“The choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course, is North Korea’s alone to make,” Mr. Gates said. “The world is waiting.”
The defense secretary, a holdover from the Bush administration and a former CIA chief, said the U.S. would protect itself and its allies if North Korea escalates further. At the same time, he suggested that the Obama administration would not pursue a policy followed by its two predecessors.
North Korean leaders “create a crisis, and then the rest of us pay a price to return to the status-quo ante,” he told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference in Singapore organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Mr. Gates referred to steps North Korea took in 2002 and 2003 to expel U.N. inspectors from its main nuclear plant at Yongbyon and begin producing plutonium for atomic weapons after the collapse of a prior agreement with the United States. In 2007, during six-nation negotiations, Pyongyang agreed to disable the complex in exchange for a series of economic benefits from the U.S. and the four other countries in the talks - South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
Until 2002, Yongbyon was frozen under the 1994 accord known as the Agreed Framework, which was negotiated after another crisis created by the North, and gave North Korea various economic benefits, including heavy fuel oil and the foundation for two civilian nuclear reactors.
“As the expression goes in the United States, ‘I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,’” Mr. Gates said Saturday in an allusion to Yongbyon’s freezing or disablement.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for $100 million in economic aid for the communist state as part of the six-party talks in next year’s budget, but that money looks unlikely to be spent as North Korea continues a belligerent response to U.S. overtures.
The Bush administration did not hide its distaste for the Agreed Framework, insisting repeatedly at the beginning of its term that North Korea’s bad behavior should not be rewarded and that the administration would not be blackmailed. However, it later changed its mind, saying the incentives it provided were worthwhile because they prevented the production of more plutonium.
“Clearly, we’ve taught them bad habits,” said Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005 and is also attending the Singapore conference. “They sold Yongbyon to Bill Clinton once, to George Bush twice, and I have no doubt that they will try to sell it to Mr. Obama.”
The six-party talks hit a snag last year when the North refused to agree to verification of its nuclear history, and Mr. Bush’s “enthusiasm to continue the endeavor had lessened greatly,” Mr. Armitage said. He added that the talks addressed Pyongyang’s plutonium program, but not the amount of plutonium it had already produced, which is estimated at up to 50 kilograms — enough for more than a dozen bombs.
“I came to the conclusion in the middle of 2002 that they are willing to bargain away their program, but they are not willing to give up nuclear weapons,” he said.
The North Koreans have spurned the Obama administration’s repeated attempts to engage them. Monday’s nuclear test was preceded and followed by missile tests, which have unnerved South Korea and Japan. South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, citing U.S. officials, reported Saturday that Pyongyang was preparing to test another intercontinental ballistic missile.
Even “if they were to engage, it’s hard to imagine the current administration being willing to give the North Koreans something to get them to stop what they ought not to have been doing in the first place,” said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York and a former U.S. diplomat.
“So it’s not just the North Koreans who have changed the game — the United States has as well,” he said.
In April, Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for an explanation of the $100 million set aside in next year’s budget for possible U.S. aid to North Korea.
“That money is there in the event — which at this point seems implausible, if not impossible — the North Koreans return to six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We have absolutely no interest and no willingness on the part of this administration to give them any economic aid at all.”
Asked by Mr. Brownback if that includes heavy fuel oil, which the United States was shipping to the North along with other countries involved in the six-party talks until late last year, Mrs. Clinton said: “Absolutely. That is my very strongly held belief.”
On his way to Asia, Mr. Gates insisted that the current situation is “not a crisis,” though on Saturday he said that the nuclear progress the North Koreans “have made gives urgency to the effort to try to bring enough pressure” on them.
“The United States and our allies are open to dialogue, but we will not bend to pressure or provocation,” he said. “We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region — or on us.”
The secretary did not specify the potential consequences if that happens, but he called for a unified international response to last week’s nuclear test.
“What is central to multilateral efforts with respect to [North Korea] now is to try to peacefully stop those programs before they do, in fact, become, as the expression goes, clear and present danger — not just to the United States, but to others here in the region,” he said.
“For there to be a peaceful solution, it requires multilateral efforts and a willingness to impose real sanctions … for their failure to adhere to international norms,” he added.
The U.S. and Japan introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution last week, and Russian and Chinese officials have indicated they will agree to some sanctions. However, there are concerns among Western diplomats that the two countries — both North Korean allies — may not go far enough.
Both China and Russia fear that tough international sanctions could create instability in the North, resulting in huge refugee waves onto their territories.
“One of the only effective ways of seizing the attention of the government in Pyongyang is by a harsh range of financial measures,” said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.