Gates’ message to ChinaU.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made surprising remarks in Beijing Tuesday. In a press conference held after he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he said, “North Korea will have a limited ability to strike Alaska or the U.S. West Coast within five years using intercontinental ballistic missiles.” He also mentioned that the North will be able to develop at least several intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, adding: “It will pose a direct threat to the United States.”
Gates’ remarks attract our attention in two respects. First, it is the first time a U.S. defense secretary officially referred to the North’s ICBMs as a direct threat to the U.S. The U.S. government has so far cited North Korea’s and Iran’s potential capabilities to develop ballistic missiles as a backdrop for its missile defense system. But this time Gates explicitly defined such abilities as a threat to U.S. security. His words “within five years” are also shocking. In an earlier review on the missile defense initiative, the Pentagon predicted that North Korea will develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs within 10 years.
Pyongyang has made painstaking efforts to develop medium- and long-range ballistic missiles with its test launch of the Daepodong One in 1998. In 2006 and 2009, it tested a more sophisticated Daepodong Two that can hit the U.S. mainland, together with nuclear tests. If Gates’ remarks are true, the North has probably made a substantial improvement in ways to minimize the size of nuclear warheads and on manufacturing ICBMs. His remarks are particularly noteworthy as they could mean that U.S. strategy has shifted away from the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to the elimination of direct threats.
Gates’ statements on the North’s ICBM threat also appear to be aimed at putting pressure on China. Coinciding with the Gates visit to Beijing, China not only conducted a test flight of its new stealth fighter jet but also leaked information on the progress of its UAV technology. With this in mind, Gates’ remarks can be understood as a call to China to rein in the North’s threat to the world and not compete in an arms race with the U.S.
Gates called on the North to show sincerity and demanded a moratorium on its test of missiles and nuclear weapons if it really wants to get what it wants from the U.S. If the North makes such a promise in the process of the six-party talks or a dialogue with the U.S., it could provide an opportunity for dialogue and negotiation. North Korea had better think twice.