Top American defense officials maintained a tough stand Wednesday against North Korea, calling its threat more lethal than ever even as an envoy from the communist regime was headed to the United States to discuss nuclear programs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused North Korea of attempting widespread nuclear proliferation. "Everything they make they seem to be willing to sell," Gates told a group of American and South Korean troops at the U.S. military headquarters in central Seoul.
"We do not today — nor will we ever — accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons," he said.
Pyongyang's peril "has become even more lethal and destabilizing," Gates said.
In a separate interview in Seoul, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command that oversees the region's military mission said North Korea "needs to be watched very closely." But Adm. Robert F. Willard also stressed diplomacy's role, calling North Korea "a whole of government problem."
The comments came amid some signs of possible softening by North Korea after years of nuclear tests and a barrage of ballistic missile test-fires, most recently last week.
The reclusive regime in recent months has reached out to Seoul and Washington, freeing detained American and South Korean citizens. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said earlier this month that his country could rejoin six-party nuclear talks, depending on the status of direct talks with the U.S.
North Korea's No. 2 nuclear negotiator, Ri Gun, was in Beijing on Wednesday on his way to the U.S., where he is scheduled to attend a security forum next week in California and a seminar in New York. Ri also is reportedly expected to meet with the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Sung Kim, to set up bilateral talks.
The North is believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for at least half a dozen atomic bombs, and has sought to advance its long-range missile capabilities.
Efforts to end its nuclear programs have often stalled because Pyongyang has backtracked on disarmament pacts. North Korea pulled out of six-nation nuclear disarmament talks in April before conducting an atomic test blast in May and a series of ballistic missile tests.
Some analysts say Pyongyang has no intention of giving up nuclear programs and could seek recognition as a nuclear state, like India. Analyst Koh Yu-hwan at Seoul's Dongguk University said the North's mixed moods of conciliation and some provocations are aimed at bolstering its negotiating position ahead of direct talks with the U.S., with a warning that it could again raise tensions at any time.
North Korea has long sought direct negotiations with the U.S. In turn, the U.S. has said it will engage in direct talks if assured that Pyongyang ends its boycott of six-nation disarmament discussions involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend against the North. Gates said the U.S. is firmly committed to help South Korea deter the North's threats "with the full range of military might, from the nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and missile defense capabilities."
Gates was in Seoul for two days of talks with South Korean officials after a stop in Tokyo. He was accompanied by Willard, who took command just two days earlier.
"A nuclear-armed North Korea, and a North Korea that chooses to provoke, and a North Korea that may be on the brink of succession — all of those things make North Korea certainly worthy of our attention," Willard said.