U.S. general: North Korea still a threat
( AP ) - The top U.S. military commander in South Korea on Monday criticized last week's missile test launches by North Korea, saying the country remains a threat despite its recent moves toward dismantling its nuclear program.
Gen. B.B. Bell said he welcomed Pyongyang's efforts to live up to a February commitment to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, part of a program he called "extremely provocative."
"One of the biggest threats to peace and stability is the potential capability for North Korea to couple its missile technology with its demonstrated nuclear capability," Bell said.
"This is real, it has peninsular, regional and global implications, and we cannot and must not ignore it," added Bell.
North Korea carried out its first atomic test in October, sparking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning it and spurring renewed efforts to persuade the country to give up its nuclear programs.
Last week, North Korea test-fired three short-range surface-to-surface missiles that landed in the North's territorial waters, according to Defense Department officials.
It was the third time in a month that the North test-fired a short-range missile, following launches May 25 and June 7, and came even as Pyongyang vowed to shut down the key component of its nuclear program and was welcoming officials from the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
"What I find very disturbing is that the North continues to test advanced short-range missiles," Bell said.
"These are designed to be used on this peninsula," he said, adding that they have enough range not only to threaten Seoul - near the border with North Korea - but other cities as well.
Bell said he did not know the reason North Korea continues to conduct such missile launches, but questioned why the country chose to do so while officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, were visiting the country."I can't gauge Kim Jong Il's intent, and I won't try to," Bell said, referring to North Korea's leader. "I will tell you we are ready and capable. And we will stay ready and capable."
The four-star general also directs the U.N. military command on the Korean peninsula and would be responsible for leading U.S. and South Korean troops in any fighting.
Also last week, North Korea said it would move to carry out a promise made in the February agreement with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. to shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Pyongyang also allowed U.N. inspectors to visit the facility.
Bell described North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "extremely provocative, threatening and dangerous to the citizen's of South Korea as well as to free men and women worldwide."
North Korea carried out its first nuclear test explosion in October last year.
"We are all very hopeful that the North Koreans will live up to the agreement they have made," to dismantle the program, Bell said.
The general also said that every opportunity should be taken to encourage North Korea to assume a less threatening stance, follow international law and agreements and "conclude a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula."
The United States stations 29,500 U.S. troops in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea. The presence is a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.