The top U.S and South Korea ’s defense officials said Wednesday North Korea remains a threat despite moves to scale back its development of nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo noted the steps that began this week where the North started disabling its main nuclear bomb-making facilities under watch of U.S. experts to fulfill promises from an international accord.
"We are started on a path, but we are far from reaching our destination," Gates told a news conference, indicating the next step would be for Pyongyang to make a complete declaration of all its nuclear facilities and activities.
Kim said despite the beginning of nuclear disablement, there was no direct intelligence showing that the North has reduced its threatening posture - where its million-man army faces off against South Korea's 680,000 forces bolstered by some 28,000 American soldiers across the world's most heavily armed border.
"We cannot conclude that the threat from North Korea has been reduced," he said.
Gates also said the North's "nuclear and conventional threat remains the focal point of our alliance's deterrent and defense posture."
The U.S. defense chief said Washington's commitment to the security of South Korea remains firm, and assured the Asian ally it would be protected under "the U.S. nuclear umbrella," according to a joint communique.
North Korea shut down its nuclear reactor in July and started disabling it this week under a February accord with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
In exchange, the communist nation was promised economic aid and political concessions, including meeting a long-standing demand from the North that it be taken off the U.S. blacklist of countries sponsoring terrorism.
Gates stressed North Korea should first meet the criteria for removal from the list, without giving details.
The North was put on the terror list for its involvement in the 1987 bombing of a South Korean jetliner that killed all 115 people aboard.
The designation effectively bars the North from taking out low-interest loans from U.S.-controlled international lenders, and Pyongyang has branded it as evidence of U.S. hostility.
The list also includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
South Korea's presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon welcomed the beginning of disabling the North's nuclear facilities as "very important and positive progress," and stressed that all participants in the six-party talks should live up to their promises.
Gates later met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and discussed the Korea-U.S. alliance and other security matters on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, Roh's office said in a statement. Roh met last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, where the two agreed to work toward an eventual peace treaty to replace the 1953 cease-fire that halted the Korean War.