SINGAPORE — The U.S. and its Asian allies are laying the groundwork for a tougher stance toward North Korea should negotiations with China and Russia fail to yield a new strategy to force the government in Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program, defense officials said Saturday.
In a meeting Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told his South Korean and Japanese counterparts that they should begin thinking about measures the three countries could take unilaterally if the so-called six-party talks continued to founder.
"The secretary raised the notion that we should think about this as we are pursuing the six-party talks," said a senior Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. "We ought to think about what more we need to do should they not prove successful."
In April, North Korea said it would "never again" participate in the talks after the United Nations rebuked it for its rocket launch over Japan.
U.S. Defense officials said that Washington still hoped to revive the talks. A high-level delegation led by a top State Department official, James Steinberg, will begin a series of meetings in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and possibly Moscow this week aimed at hashing out a consensus on North Korea.
But in the past, Gates had been dismissive of the talks, and U.S. officials had privately worried about Russia's commitment to intensifying pressure on North Korea.
Officials said that if a multilateral approach showed signs of failing, the U.S. would begin discussions about the need to develop "prudent measures" that it could take with South Korea and Japan.
But China on Saturday signaled its displeasure with that prospect.
"China opposes the enlargement of the existing bilateral military alliances in Asia-Pacific, which were left over from the Cold War," Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of the general staff, said in a speech to an Asian security summit in Singapore.
After the speech, Ma said he understood South Korea's and Japan's concerns about North Korea's recent nuclear test, and said China shared them.
"As a close neighbor of North Korea, China has expressed our firm opposition, our grave concern about the nuclear test," Ma said. "We are resolutely opposed to nuclear proliferation."
But it was unclear whether China would go as far as the United States wanted in pressuring North Korea to give up its weapons program. Ma called on the countries involved to "remain coolheaded and take measured measures."
In the meeting among the U.S., South Korea and Japan, the defense ministers discussed no specifics of new measures they should take against North Korea.
"There is no prescription yet on what to do, but there are lots of ideas," another senior defense official said
Additional measures could include moving forces around, or into, the region and shoring up missile defenses in South Korea or Japan.
"The other prudent option is, what should we be thinking about in the event we need to start enhancing our defenses?" the official said.
In the meeting, the officials from the three countries discussed the necessity of not appearing to reward North Korea for its test by offering it any concessions.
"We have evaluated the situation and pledged to craft a common response," South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said afterward. "North Korea, perhaps to this point, may have mistakenly believed it could be rewarded for its behavior, but that is no longer the case."