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A military answer to North Korea? Not likely.

Defense Secretary Gates, off to Singapore for a regional security summit, says US sees no 'crisis' in Pyongyang's 'very provocative' display of force this week.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / May 29, 2009


The US is unlikely to use its significant military presence in Asia to counter the rising belligerence from North Korea, which conducted unlawful nuclear and missile tests this week.

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The US has about 28,500 troops on the Korean peninsula, including more than 16,000 soldiers guarding the "demilitarized zone" between North and South Korea. On Thursday, the US and South Korea raised the threat level there to its highest point in 2-1/2 years, in response to Pyongyang's actions.

But there are few military options to counter North Korea's move, and analysts say most of them would seem aggressive and only ratchet up the tension.

"As North Korea escalates day by day, you don't want to be provocative," says Nicholas Szechenyi, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. The US military should sit this one out because this is a time for diplomacy, not a show of force, he says.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, en route to an annual security summit in Singapore Friday, signaled as much, saying North Korea's actions so far do not warrant sending more US troops to the region.

"I don't think that anybody in the [Obama] administration thinks there is a crisis," Mr. Gates told reporters aboard his military jet early Friday morning, still Thursday night in Washington.

"What we do have, though, are two new developments that are very provocative, that are aggressive, accompanied by very aggressive rhetoric," he said. "And I think it brings home the reality of the challenge that North Korea poses to the region and to the international community."

The missile tests, including a new one Friday, no doubt will feature prominently at the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue, which brings together Japan, South Korea, and China, among other nations. In seeking to reassure America's Asian allies, Gates will have to navigate a fine line between diplomacy and military muscle-flexing there, experts say.