SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. and South Korean forces can deter and defeat North Korea even if the reclusive communist state has several nuclear weapons, a senior U.S. military officer said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.
Amid growing signs stalled six-country talks on those weapons could restart, South Korea's foreign minister said regional powers trying to coax North Korea back to the table should anticipate a possible resumption of the process.
Seoul sent its unification minister to Washington on Wednesday for talks with senior U.S. officials including Vice President Dick Cheney on the nuclear crisis.
The commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, General Leon LaPorte, said the U.S. military believed North Korea had one to two nuclear weapons at a minimum, and was also working to advance its missile programme.
"Whether North Korea has one or several nuclear weapons does not change the balance on the peninsula," LaPorte told South Korea's PBC radio in an interview taped on Tuesday, according to a transcript provided by the station.
"The U.S. and the Republic of Korea 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," he said.
LaPorte he said the United States was fully committed to talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programmes and sought a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Those talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said Washington has no intention of attacking the North.
LaPorte also said the U.S. military believed the North had a substantial missile programme, which included long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the mainland United States if the North succeeded in increasing their power.
U.S. officials dealing with North Korea's growing nuclear threat will hold an exercise next month at Washington's National Defence University on how to react and anticipate consequences if a crisis develops, U.S. government sources said.
The university, a leading U.S. military education institution under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has scheduled a "crisis simulation" exercise for July 18.
North Korea said in February it possessed nuclear weapons and was boycotting the six-party talks, but recently has shown signs it may return to the table.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told visiting South Korea Unification Minister Chung Dong-young this month his country was prepared to return to negotiations if certain conditions were met, such as Washington treating Pyongyang as a genuine partner.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told a news conference on Wednesday the five countries working to bring the North back to the table had been encouraged by Kim's comments.
"Considering these, I believe it will be desirable for the North to return to the talks without further delay, and it is also probably worth anticipating it," Ban said.
"Since North Korea's top leader has indicated a commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and a willingness to return to the talks, we look forward to North Korea's return to the talks without more delay," Ban said.
On Tuesday, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a North Korean diplomatic source as saying Pyongyang was preparing to return to the table in the second half of July. Ban declined to comment on that report.