US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said North Korea had become a more deadly threat to the region and Washington would never tolerate a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
North Korea in recent weeks has indicated it could return to dormant international talks on ending its nuclear arms program after raising alarm in the economically vital North Asian region with an atomic test in May and threats to attack the South.
“America’s long-term military commitment here recognizes that the peril posed by the North Korean regime remains, and in many ways has become even more lethal and destabilizing,” Gates told US and South Korean troops in Seoul.
Impoverished North Korea positions most of its 1.2 million soldiers near the border with the wealthy South, has thousands of artillery pieces trained on the Seoul area and hundreds of missile that can hit all of the South and most of Japan.
It fired a barrage of short-range missiles last week that military officials in the South said showed greater accuracy and range than previous versions. Analysts said the launch was an attempt by Pyongyang to boost its bargaining leverage ahead of any nuclear talks.
“There should be no mistaking that we do not today, nor will we ever, accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons,” said Gates, who was in South Korea after visiting Japan.
The United States said last week it would allow a senior North Korean official to visit this month, a move analysts said could be a first step toward getting nuclear disarmament negotiations back on track.
Sputtering six-way talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States are aimed at enticing Pyongyang to abandon its atomic ambitions in return for aid to fix its broken economy and an end to its international ostracism.
The United States stations about 28 000 troops in South Korea to support the 670 000 soldiers of its ally. The two Koreas are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire and not a peace treaty.
Pic: North Korea military parade