WASHINGTON — The U.S. on Wednesday accused North Korea of "provocative and belligerent" behavior as Defense Secretary Robert Gates took on the delicate task of reassuring Asian allies of U.S. support without further provoking the communist government.
Gates flew to Singapore for meetings with foreign ministers aimed at a cohesive response to the North Korean atomic test. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued stern statements underscoring the firmness of U.S. treaty commitments to defend South Korea and Japan, U.S. allies in easy range of the North's missiles.
Gates' trip to meet with leaders from South Korea, Japan and other Far East nations had already been planned, but U.S. officials said North Korea's bomb and missile tests and heated rhetoric would dominate the discussions.
Gates is scheduled to visit the Philippine capital in Manila and will possibly discuss U.S. troop levels stationed there. He also planned to stop by two U.S. bases in Alaska on his way back to Washington next week.
Military officials said Wednesday there are signs of activity at North Korea's partially disabled nuclear reactor complex that could indicate work to restart the facility and resume production of nuclear fuel.
One official said steam has been detected at the complex. Like other activity detected at the site, the steam alone is inconclusive, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the methods of collecting information about North Korean activity are sensitive.
Any move to restart the plant would be a major setback for international efforts to get North Korea to disarm. North Korea has about 8,000 spent fuel rods which, if reprocessed, could allow it to harvest 13 to 18 pounds of plutonium _ enough to make at least one nuclear weapon, experts said.
North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen weapons, but experts say it still has not mastered the miniaturization technology required to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range
The Pentagon was still testing and analyzing particle matter taken from clouds in the region to confirm that the detonation was, indeed, a nuclear explosion. A senior official said U.S. military jets were to take a second sampling later this week.
Clinton used tough language that contrasted with statements from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs that dismissed North Korean "saber-rattling."
"North Korea has made a choice," she said. "It has chosen to violate the specific language of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718. It has ignored the international community. It has abrogated the obligations it entered into through the six-party talks. And it continues to act in a provocative and belligerent manner toward its neighbors. There are consequences to such actions."
Clinton said she was pleased by a unified international condemnation of North Korea that included Russia and China, North Korea's only major ally and the host of the stalled disarmament talks. The success of any new sanctions would depend on how aggressively China implements them.
Gibbs said that North Korea was continuing to violate international treaties in the wake of the nuclear detonation and threats to attack South Korea for joining a U.S.-led security program.
"Threats won't get North Korea the attention it craves," Gibbs told reporters at the White House. "Their actions are continuing to further deepen their own isolation from the international community and from their rights and obligations that they themselves have agreed to live up to."
South Korea had resisted joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a network of nations seeking to stop ships from transporting materials used in nuclear bombs. It joined the coalition after Monday's bomb test _ a move that North Korea described Wednesday as akin to a declaration of war.
Nicholas Szechenyi, a northeast Asia policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said on Gates' Far East trip, he would likely focus on the security agreement and other programs to stem nuclear proliferation while in Singapore. But Szechenyi he said many operations steps by Washington to hobble Pyongyang likely would not be taken any time soon.
Szechenyi said joint U.S.-South Korea maritime exercises would probably not happen immediately. "You want to respond to North Korea but not provoke them, so I would not expect this immediately," he said.
Arnold Kanter, a former undersecretary of state in George H.W. Bush's administration, called North Korea's behavior "erratic and delusional" as well as "very threatening."
The atomic test was the North's second in less than three years. It promised to get rid of nuclear weapons in return for economic and security prizes from its neighbors and the West, but talks to make that a reality broke down last year.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Foster Klug and Barry Schweid contributed to this report.