BEIJING, Jan. 11, 2011 -- If it continues on its current path, North Korea could be a "direct threat" to the United States in five years or less, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Beijing, today.
Gates has shared with Chinese officials America's concern about North Korea, and the need for stability on the peninsula. The secretary spoke to reporters at a roundtable following meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Gates told reporters that North Korea is not an immediate threat to the United States.
"But on the other hand, I don't think it is a five-year threat," the secretary said. "Let me be precise. I think that North Korea will have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile within that time frame."
The secretary thanked Chinese officials for the constructive role they have played in dampening tensions on the peninsula.
"They clearly have played a helpful role," he said.
There are two major events that have changed the status quo on the Korean peninsula, Gates said. The first is North Korean leaders continuing their development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States and we have to take that into account," Gates said.
The second event, he said, is "the sea change in the attitude of the South Korean public in their willingness to tolerate the kind of provocations the North Koreans have engaged in for many years."
In March last year, North Korea torpedoed the South Korean ship Cheonan and killed 46 South Korean sailors. In November, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two South Korean marines.
"Clearly, if there is another provocation, there will be pressure on the South Korean government to react," 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."
It's time, Gates said, for North Korea to engage in meaningful negotiations with its neighbor to the south.
"We don't want to see the situation that we've seen so many times before, which is the North Koreans engage in a provocation and then everybody scrambles to try to put 'Humpty Dumpty' back together again," he said. "I've used the phrase, 'I don't want to buy the same horse twice.'"
"I think we would like to see some concrete actions by North Korea that shows they are serious about moving to a negotiation and engagement track," Gates added.
North Korean officials announced that they are ready for negotiations with South Korea.
"Rhetoric is not enough at this time," Gates said. "I think the North Koreans have to demonstrate that they are serious about negotiation and engagement at this point."
The secretary suggested North Korean moratoriums on missile testing and nuclear testing for a start.
"There are several areas where they can take concrete actions," he said.
The secretary leaves China for Japan Jan. 12, and will visit South Korea later this week.