WASHINGTON -- The U.S. can do nothing about North Korea's plans to launch a rocket even though it's a step toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
North Korea says it plans to launch a communications satellite into orbit between this coming Saturday and April 8 as part of its space program. The U.S. and other nations believe that the launch is actually a test of the North's technology for a long-range missile and therefore a violation of a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting ballistic activity by the Asian country.
"I don't know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile," Gates said in an interview broadcast on "Fox News Sunday."
Asked if North Korea was capable of placing a nuclear warhead atop a missile, Gates said: "I think that we believe that that's their long-term intent. I personally would be skeptical that they have the ability right now to do that."
A Tokyo newspaper, Sankei, reported Sunday that Japanese officials believe North Korea is preparing to fire a short- or medium-range missile shortly after launching the communications satellite, which will be carried by a long-range rocket. Japan's Defense Ministry declined to comment on the Sankei report.
Gates said the U.S. has no plans to try to shoot down the North Korean missile but might consider trying if an "aberrant missile" were headed to Hawaii "or something like that." He said he didn't believe a missile from the North could reach the West Coast of the U.S. or Alaska.
Earlier this month, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, Adm. Timothy Keating, told the Senate that the U.S. has the capability of shooting down any missile from North Korea and would be "prepared to respond" in the event of a missile launch.
Gates said North Korea's missile plans are troubling in light of the U.S. and other nations denouncing a launch as a provocative act and unlawful under the U.N. resolution. The plans also do not bode well, Gates said, for efforts by President Barack Obama and other leaders to negotiate an end to Korean leader Kim Jong-il's work toward developing a nuclear weapon.
"The reality is that the six-party talks really have not made any headway anytime recently," Gates said. "If this is Kim Jong-il's welcoming present to a new president, launching a missile like this and threatening to have a nuclear test, I think it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures."
Gates said he believes that economic penalties against North Korea are more likely than diplomacy to result in progress for U.S. policies toward the North.