In Tokyo, Gates calls for unity, pledges help if S. Korea is attacked by North

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says North Korea will pose a direct threat to the United States within five years if the communist dictatorship isn't reined in. Gates made the comments while visiting with leaders in China. (Jan. 12)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:48 AM

TOKYO - South Korea would have U.S. support if it retaliates in the event of another North Korean attack, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday as he called on all the countries in the region to work together to ward off such a provocation.

In Tokyo on the fourth day of a northeast Asia trip, Gates met with all the Japanese government's senior officials as part of an effort to create a united front against North Korean belligerence and further the U.S. policy of forcing Pyongyang to halt random attacks on the South and return to talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program.

"It's a long-standing principle that every country has the right to protect itself and defend itself against an unprovoked attack," Gates said at a joint news conference with Japan's defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa. "I think the key on the Korean Peninsula, as I discussed in China and discussed here in Japan, is to prevent another provocation from happening."

Gates traveled to Japan from China, where he spent several days trying to patch together high-level military ties with Beijing. China suspended those ties last year after the United States sold a $6.4 billion package of weapons to Taiwan. While in Beijing, Gates told China that the United States would not stop selling weapons to Taiwan.

It was not clear how welcoming the Chinese were. Although the People's Liberation Army committed to more talks with Washington and announced that several top generals would travel to Washington at a date to be set later, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie declined to say clearly whether the PLA would refrain from suspending relations again the next time Washington sells weapons to Taiwan. China also conducted its first flight test of a stealth fighter. Gates pointedly asked China's President Hu Jintao why the test was conducted while he was still in China, but Hu at first appeared surprised that a test had occurred and only afterward said it was not conducted with Gates's visit in mind.

Gates also lobbied China to continue pressing North Korea to stop provoking South Korea and put Beijing on notice that if North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and succeeds in building an intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States would view it as a "direct threat" to U.S. interests. Gates predicted that North Korea would need five years to accomplish that goal. He also laid out for the first time a road map for North Korea to follow if it wants to resume negotiations with the United States and other countries as part of the six-party talks. That is, North Korea should call a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, he 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 told reporters Wednesday in Beijing, "but 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 diplomatically to try and put Humpty-Dumpty back together again."

One of Gates's main messages in Beijing and elsewhere is how the North's persistent belligerence has changed the political equation in South Korea. For years, the South basically put up with it. But now, Gates said, there "is clearly a 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."

"Clearly," he added, "if there is another provocation, there will be pressure on the South Korean government to react."

In Tokyo, Gates and Kitazawa pledged to further strengthen ties in the face of the fluid regional security situation.

"While issues associated with Okinawa and Futenma have tended to dominate the headlines this past year," Gates said, "the U.S.-Japan defense alliance is broader, deeper and indeed richer than any single issue."

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