For jittery South Korean officials, the assurance from Defense Secretary Robert Gates was exactly what they wanted while waiting for the United States finally to agree on bilateral talks with North Korea.
The essence of Mr. Gates's message to the South, as delivered Wednesday before soldiers at the central US military base here: No way would the US "ever accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons."
Indeed, Gates told the soldiers in a gymnasium on the Yongsan base, "the peril posed by the North Korean regime remains – and in many ways has become even more lethal and destabilizing."
That outspoken declaration came as the State Department moves toward the two-way dialogue long desired by North Korea – and seen by South Korea as a possible step toward North Korea's goal of recognition as a nuclear power. Officials view with suspicion the permission granted by the State Department for North Korean negotiator Ri Gun to attend seminars in California and New York, at which he's expected to meet US negotiator Sung Kim and discuss plans for US envoy Stephen Bosworth to go to Pyongyang.
For the record, however, South Korea's foreign and unification ministers both say they accept assurances that the US will not violate its pledge to limit two-way dialogue simply to the need for North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program.
"The US position on the six-party talks has remained very clear," says Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, citing bilateral talks between Washington and Seoul. "I feel confident about the position of the US regarding the six-party talks."
Nonetheless, overall faith in the process has declined since Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in talks in Pyongyang with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, agreed on economic deals that South Koreans believe are likely to undermine sanctions imposed after North Korea's nuclear test on May 25.
"Recently, China has disappointed us by providing an economic package without a tangible outcome," says Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University who advises the South Korean government on policy. "China is in the same boat with all of us. Otherwise a united front will not be workable."
Under the circumstances, Professor Kim warns, "the US has to be very careful in formulating what kind of bilateral talks will take place."
He chooses his words deliberately when asked how his government would respond if US-North Korean dialogue moves beyond six-party talks.
"If Washington decides the formula of bilateral talks should be more substantive," says Kim, "the situation will become very complicated – and the confidence of the South Korean government will decrease."
Secretary Gates, arriving here from Japan, avoided any mention of dialogue but minced no words about the North Korean threat with both conventional and nuclear weapons.
North Korea's "pursuit of nuclear weapons and proliferation of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile weapons and parts have focused our attention," he said. But North Korea's conventional forces "can still inflict enormous destruction south of the demilitarized zone" that divides the two Koreas."
Whatever happens, the secretary vowed, the US "is committed to providing extended deterrence using the full range of American military might – from the nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and defense capabilities."
And, for the benefit of those who might think the US plans to pull some of its 28,500 troops from South Korea, he promised that the US "will maintain an enduring and capable military presence on the Korean peninsula."
As proof of the US commitment, Gates cited "our plans to make three-year accompanied tours," that is, Korean assignments with families accompanying troops at government expense, "the norm for most US troops in Korea" – the same perks provided US troops in Europe.