SEOUL, Jan. 14 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday diplomatic engagement with North Korea is "possible," but Pyongyang must first stop its "dangerous provocations and take concrete steps" to meet its international obligations.
Gates made the remarks as he started talks in Seoul with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to discuss concerns over the increasingly belligerent North and ways to further strengthen their deterrence against the communist state.
"With regard to next steps on North Korea, diplomatic engagement is possible, starting with direct engagement between DPRK and the South," Gates told Kim. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
"When or if North Korea's action shows a cause to believe that negotiations can be productive and conducted in good faith, then we could see a return to the six-party talks," Gates said.
During his earlier stops in Beijing and Tokyo this week, Gates said North Korea can prove its sincerity by declaring a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
After sharply raising cross-border tensions with a series of deadly military provocations last year, North Korea started this year with repeated calls to resume the six-party talks and inter-Korean dialogue.
While regional powers are moving to revive stalled six-nation negotiations aimed at ending the North's nuclear programs, South Korea has rebuked the North's dialogue offer as insincere and a tactic to blame Seoul for not negotiating. Seoul is also wary of the North's repeated pattern of winning more concessions after raising tensions.
Improved inter-Korean ties are a key precondition set by Seoul and Washington for resuming the six-party talks that have been suspended since late 2008. The six-party talks, hosted by the North's main backer China, also include the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (R) shakes hands with his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates before starting talks at the Defense Ministry in Seoul on Jan. 14. (Yonhap)
"DPRK leadership must stop these dangerous provocations and take concrete steps to show they will begin meeting their international obligations," the U.S. defense chief said.
Kim said Friday's talks with Gates will reaffirm the solid alliance between the allies and their pledge to strongly respond should North Korea provokes again.
"I believe that strong force is the only measure to effectively cope with threats posed by North Korea," Kim said.
"To that end, I think a stronger Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance is important," Kim said, referring to South Korea by its official name.
Gates described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as "tense" because of North Korea's continued belligerent and repeated provocations.
"That is why I thought it was so important for me to come here and demonstrate America's solidarity with our close ally of more than 60 years," Gates said.
Kim and Gates said they will discuss military coordination and consultation between the two nations in order to deter future provocations.
After talks with Kim, Gates is to visit the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae and meet President Lee Myung-bak before ending his week-long Asian tour.
Tensions have remained acute since North Korea launched an unprovoked artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island near the Yellow Sea border on Nov. 23, killing two marines and two civilians.
The bombardment came just eight months after North Korea sank a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea, in which 46 sailors died. Pyongyang denies the ship sinking accusation.