SEOUL, South Korea – A U.S. military commander on Wednesday said the United States (search) and South Korea (search) could repel any attack by North Korea, even if the secretive country has one or two nuclear bombs.
Gen. Leon LaPorte (search), commander of the U.S. military in South Korea, said he believes that North Korea has at least one or two nuclear weapons, but that the combined American and South Korean forces on the peninsula could deter or defeat any attack from the North.
Washington and Seoul "retain our ability to deter North Korean aggression and if required, to decisively defeat the North Korean threat if they were to threaten South Korea," LaPorte said in an interview with Seoul's PBC Radio (search).
North Korea claimed in February it had nuclear weapons and has since then made moves that would allow it to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium.
Meanwhile, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young (search) headed to Washington to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials. Chung planned to discuss his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who told Chung that Pyongyang could return to the stalled six-nation nuclear negotiations as early as July — if Washington respects it as a partner.
"We will continue diplomatic efforts, putting weight on the possibility of (North Korea's) return in July" as Kim has suggested, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon (search) told reporters Wednesday. "Through maximum diplomatic efforts, we will try to resume the talks in July."
Ban said a "positive atmosphere" has been created for resumption of the talks and that "it is desirable for North Korea to return to the talks without further delay."
North Korea has stayed away from the arms talks — which also involve South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States — for more than a year.
Chung's Washington visit is aimed in part at dispelling U.S. concerns over whether Kim will remain committed to his remarks hinting at a return to the nuclear negotiations, said Hong Seok-hyun, South Korea's ambassador to Washington.
The United States has been skeptical of Kim's comments, urging North Korea to set a firm date to return to the arms talks.
"It is true there are doubts about whether words will lead to actions," Hong told South Korea's MBC Radio Wednesday. "Minister Chung's visit to the United States is important for dispelling these."
Experts say there is a high probability the disarmament talks will resume soon.
"I think it's possible the talks will resume in July or in August if a little later," said Park Jun-young, political science professor at Ewha Womans University. "It's about time the North return, bargain and negotiate."
Park said North Korea — which has a history of using brinkmanship to wring foreign aid — would be able to win large concessions including energy aid from the South in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons.
"The United States will make no more concessions, but it may accept to a certain degree South Korea's assistance if that can dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program," he said.