Seoul: New international disarmament talks with North Korea are possible only if the North backs off recent aggression against South Korea and demonstrates it is willing to bargain in good faith, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
Gates said diplomacy is worthwhile, starting with direct talks between the North and South. South Korea has rejected new talks for now, reflecting intense anger and impatience over North Korean attacks.
Gates attached no conditions to possible new discussions between the North and South beyond an end to attacks like two in the past year blamed for killing about 50 South Koreans.
He insisted on "concrete steps" by the North for new talks involving the United States.
"When or if North Korea`s actions show cause to believe negotiations could be productive or conducted in good faith, then we could see a return" to dormant six-nation disarmament talks, Gates said.
Those talks include the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.
Gates made a brief stop in Seoul for crisis talks on North Korea to close a week of military discussions in Asia clouded by the threat of new war on the Korean peninsula.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told Gates that his country feels under attack.
South Korea sees recent North Korean aggression as the worst since the close of the Korean War six decades ago.
"Many expect North Korea to conduct more provocation this year," Kim said.
South Korea must answer "from the basis of strength," he added.
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.
North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors, and shelled front-line Yeonpyeong Island in November, killing four people there. The island sits in waters the North claims.
The U.S. is urging patience but is worried that rising frustration in the South may force its leaders to retaliate if the North attacks again.
Gates was in Tokyo earlier Friday, where he said North Korea was less able to invade South Korea now than it was a decade or more ago but has become a more lethal threat to Asia and the world.
"The character and priorities of the North Korean regime sadly have not changed," Gates said.
"North Korea`s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago, but in other respects it has grown more lethal and more destabilizing," Gates said in an address to students at Keio University.
North Korea`s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology "threaten not just the peninsula, but the Pacific Rim and international stability," Gates said.
Regarding China, Gates said that even as the U.S. military relationship between the two countries improves, at least one area of disagreement continues: "freedom of navigation." That`s a euphemism for the U.S. view that it has the right to sail its ships in waters that China claims as restricted.
Freedom of shipping and commerce have been basic principles for the United States since its founding, Gates pointed out.