Pentagon chief huddles with allies about NKorea

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, right, meets with Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Published: Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 12:43 a.m.

TOKYO — The United States fears that the risk of war is rising between U.S. ally South Korea and the heavily militarized and increasingly unpredictable regime in North Korea, which the Pentagon also considers a looming threat to the mainland United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was meeting top political leaders in Japan on Thursday about the growing worry in the region that the North might push its customary saber-rattling too far. Gates sees leaders in South Korea on Friday.

The top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, said North Korea poses "an evolving threat, not just to the region but to the United States specifically."

Mullen, speaking at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, urged coordinated pressure among China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, which are considered the nations with disarmament leverage and the most at stake.

The capability to strike beyond North Korean shores "is becoming more and more dangerous," Mullen said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Gates laid out a twofold worry: The South Korean public is fed up after two deadly attacks blamed on the North last year and wants its government to fight back, and the North is developing nuclear weapons it could aim at the U.S.

"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," he said during a visit to China.

Gates was urging patience while China, which props up the fellow communist state, tries to persuade North Korea to avoid a military provocation that South Korea would feel bound to answer.

The North twice shocked the South last year, allegedly sinking a South Korean warship in March, killing 46, and then shelling front-line Yeonpyeong Island in November, killing four. The island sits in waters the North claims as its own.

South Korea and Japan held military talks Monday on accords to share intelligence and provide each other with fuel and medical support, officials said, in a sign of the growing worry about the North.

Seoul and Tokyo are important trading and diplomatic partners, but the possibility of such a military pact is a sensitive topic in South Korea, because of Japan's brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula that ended in 1945. The accords would be the two nations' first military agreement since then.

The two Koreas restored an important cross-border communication channel on Wednesday, though South Korea still rejected North Korea's calls for talks meant to defuse high tensions.

The North cut off the Red Cross communication line at the border village of Panmunjom last year when tension spiked over the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang. Relations between the Koreas further soured after a North Korean artillery attack that killed four South Koreans on a front-line island in November.

The North, however, has recently proposed resuming talks with South Korea. It also made conciliatory gestures Monday, offering to restore the Red Cross line and allowing South Korean officials back into a joint factory park in the North.

Seoul has so far rebuffed the dialogue offer as a ploy for aid, saying the North must demonstrate responsibility for the attacks and take steps toward nuclear disarmament before talks can be held. North Korea has denied involvement in the ship sinking, which killed 46 sailors.

It's an equation that leaves South Korea and its powerful U.S. ally looking strangely impotent in the face of North Korean attacks, most recently after the Nov. 23 shelling of a front-line South Korean island that killed two civilians and two marines. The South has few options to respond to aggression without placing its own citizens at huge risk.

The insolvent and highly militarized North maintains an enormous army and spends disproportionately to feed and arm it. From a population of just 24 million, it has created the world's fourth largest army, with an estimated 1.2 million on active duty and 7.7 million reserves.

A repeat of 1950, when North Korean forces streamed across the border in a surprise attack that sparked the Korean War, is unlikely. Standing in their way are 650,000 South Korean troops, much better prepared than those overrun six decades ago, and 28,500 American troops backed by another 50,000 in nearby Japan.

The United States supports its ally with the most advanced jets, bombers and ships in the world and a nuclear powered aircraft carrier based in Japan. Seoul also sits under a so-called nuclear umbrella: U.S. security commitments backed up with nuclear weapons.

The North is pursuing nuclear weapons and is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs. Gates predicted Tuesday that it will have a limited ability to deliver a weapon to U.S. shores within five years.

South Korea enjoys an enormous advantage in air and naval power, where money is needed to keep jets and ships fueled and maintained and pilots and sailors well-trained.

The North's navy is antiquated and its air force is mostly obsolete, but it has a 2-to-1 advantage over the South in tanks, long-range artillery and armored personnel carriers, according to the U.S. State Department.

It also has 200,000 commandos, by South Korean estimates, ready to slip across the border to carry out assassinations and cause havoc at air bases and ports critical to the South's defense.

The North's chief advantage is geography. Seoul, the capital and a city of more than 10 million, lies only 30 miles from the border, within reach of many of the North's 13,600 long-range artillery guns.

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