BEIJING North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States and could develop an inter-continental ballistic missile within five years, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday.
Gates detailed the new U.S. assessment of Pyongyang's capabilities during a visit to Beijing, where he praised Chinese efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula but also stressed the urgency to rein in the reclusive state.
China is North Korea's top diplomatic and economic backer and Gates said it was "self-evident" that North Korea would likely come up in talks between Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington next week.
"With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of inter-continental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States," Gates told reporters after talks with Hu.
Gates said he did not believe North Korea was an immediate threat, but added it was also not a "five-year threat."
"I think that North Korea will have developed an inter-continental ballistic missile within that time -- not that they will have huge numbers or anything like that," Gates said. "But they will have, I believe they will have a very limited capability."
North Korea has more than 800 ballistic missiles and more than 1,000 missiles of various ranges. It has sold missiles and technology overseas, with Iran a top buyer.
Pyongyang's arsenal already includes intermediate-range missiles that can hit targets at up to 3,000 km (1,860 miles) away, the Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean official as saying last year. Those missiles could hit all of Japan and put U.S. military bases in Guam at risk.
An inter-continental ballistic missile, or ICBM, could potentially threaten the continental United States.
Adding to U.S. concerns, the North also revealed late last year it had made considerable progress in its uranium enrichment programme, potentially giving it a second route to make a nuclear bomb.
TALKS WITH THE NORTH?
The new U.S. concerns come amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula after a deadly attack on a South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean warship last year.
Gates suggested Seoul's patience with the North had run out, saying: "If there is another provocation, there will be pressure on the South Korean government to react".
"We consider this a situation of real concern and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement," Gates said, while again conditioning any talks on a show of North Korean sincerity.
After threatening the South with nuclear weapons last month, the North has made almost daily offers since the start of the year to return to the negotiating table.
Seoul, which has called the offers "propaganda", on Monday responded to an official request for talks from the North with a counter offer for a South-North Korean government meeting to confirm the North's sincerity.
Gates suggested North Korea could announce a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing.
"There are several areas where they could take concrete actions," said Gates, who will travel to Japan and South Korea later this week.
The North responded on Tuesday by declaring the only way for the two Koreas to work out their differences was to sit down first at a table to test each other's resolve to iron out differences through talks.
"Whether we are sincere or not will be proven when we sit together face-to-face," Minju Joson, a publication of the North's cabinet, said in an editorial carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence in Seoul; Writing by Phil Stewart and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Dean Yates)