SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that North Korea poses a threat to Washington's allies in North Asia and promised to protect them under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Gates, on a visit to Seoul, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, said a day earlier the United States would never tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, as Pyongyang in recent weeks has indicated it could return to stalled disarmament discussions.
"The United States will continue to provide extended deterrence using the full range of military capabilities including the nuclear umbrella to ensure ROK security," Gates said in a meeting with the South's defense chief. South Korea's official name is the Republic of Korea.
Clinton laid down a hard line as Washington weighs whether to hold bilateral talks with North Korea, a step it hopes will bring Pyongyang back to wider, six-party talks on ending its nuclear programs in exchange for aid and better global standing.
North Korea began reaching out to foes South Korea and the United States after it was hit by fresh U.N. sanctions for its nuclear test in May. The sanctions targeted the North's overseas arms sales, which provide vital cash for the destitute state.
Gates said the North's threat from its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction remained real and imminent and said Washington would continue to work with regional powers to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"In addition to the traditional military threat, North Korea's ballistic missiles and emerging nuclear programs have a destabilizing effect both regionally and internationally," Gates told a news conference after meeting South Korea's defense chief.
"We will stand together with the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and our other allies and partners toward achieving the complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea."
South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young said it was too early to say whether reclusive North Korea was ready to engage seriously in nuclear diplomacy.
"Although, on the surface, there are signs of some change from North Korea, including its recent willingness to talk, in reality the unstable situation such as the nuclear program and the military-first policy continues unchanged," Kim said.
Gates and Kim agreed that recent North Korean missile tests were in violation of Security Council resolutions, a joint statement said.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Dean Yates