Shangri-La Opens with Concerns over North Korea
By Wendell Minnick
SINGAPORE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Pyongyang that the U.S. "will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia - or on us."
Gates called the state's second nuclear test on May 25 a "clear and present danger" to the security of the region.
The North Korean debate dominated this year's annual Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore from May 29-31. Sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Shangri-La is officially known as the IISS Asian Security Summit. It has become the premier summit of defense ministers and foreign ministry officials from around the Asia-Pacific.
Gates told delegates the policy of the U.S. has not changed. "Our goal is complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state."
"North Korea's nuclear program and actions constitute a threat to regional peace and security. We unequivocally reaffirm our commitment to the defense of our allies in the region," he said.
Gates warned North Korea that the "transfer of nuclear weapons or material…to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies."
In the past, North Korea has sold missile technology to Iran, Iraq and Syria, and there are fears among analysts that future sales might include nuclear technology.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who gave the keynote address, said the "proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including the possibility of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is a threat of increasing international concern," he said, citing Iran's nuclear program as a continuing concern.
"The international community must respond with one voice and with a common program of action against Pyongyang," Rudd said. "The United Nations Security Council must be of common resolve against a regime that is so reckless in relation to you common security."
There are fears, echoed by Shangri-La delegates, that past efforts, including Six Party Talks, have been a failure, and decisive action is needed to denuclearize Pyongyang. However, there were no calls for military force at the summit.
South Korean Minister of Defense Lee Sang Hee called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis via more negotiations with the North.
"Our government will work to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis issue peacefully through close consultation with members of the Six-Party Talks and the international community, and will do all it can to help the Six-Party take its place as a multilateral security cooperative body in Northeast Asia."
Lee also called upon the U.N. Security Council to take "proper measures against North Korea's wrong-doings … and return to the Six-Party Talks frame as soon as possible."
Gates appeared perplexed by efforts to open dialogue with Pyongyang. "North Korea's latest reply to overtures isn't exactly something we would characterize as helpful or constructive."
"I think the progress they have made gives urgency to the effort to try and bring enough pressure to bear on the North Koreans to get them to change their path," he said. "We have to be very tough minded about this."
"Everyone in this room is familiar with the tactics the North Koreans use. They create a crisis, and then the rest of us pay a price to return to the status quo ante," he said. "As the expression goes in the United States, 'I'm tired of buying the same horse twice.'"
Various delegates said that efforts to stop North Korea would be difficult and that only China holds the key to denuclearizing Pyongyang.
However, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff, People's Liberation Army, sympathized with the concern in the international community, especially Japan and South Korea, but said nothing about a plan of action in dealing with North Korea.
"As a close neighbor of North Korea, China has expressed our grave concern about the nuclear test. The Minister of Foreign Affairs has stated that our stance on this issue is consistent," Ma said. "We are resolutely opposed to nuclear proliferation. Our view is that the Korean peninsula should move towards denuclearization and we hope that all parties concerned will remain cool headed."
Ma's comments were in stark contrast to Gates who warned North Korea it would be held "fully accountable for the consequences." He challenged the North Korean leadership to make a "choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course."