US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Sunday warned North Korea may pose a threat as a weapons seller to terrorists and that the US would consider taking the nuclear warheads off intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) so that they could be used against terrorists.
Rumsfeld, in Alaska to visit a missile defense installation weeks after Pyongyang test-fired a long-range missile believed capable of reaching the US, said North Korea is testing missiles to show the capabilities to potential buyers.
"They sell anything to anyone," he said.
"They sell our currency that they counterfeit. They're selling illegal drugs. They're selling basic missile technologies. There's not much they have that they wouldn't sell either to another country or possibly to a terrorist network," he said.
In unusually blunt terms, however, Rumsfeld said South Korea need not fear the North as an immediate military threat.
He made plain that he sees the North's conventional military strength eroding as its economy crumbles.
"I don't see them, frankly, as an immediate military threat to South Korea," he said.
"I think the real threat that North Korea poses in the immediate future is more one of proliferation than a danger to South Korea," he told reporters.
The defense secretary also met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Sunday to discuss missile defense and cooperation on defense technologies, among other things.
Rumsfeld, after that closed-door meeting, said the Pentagon was considering a plan to replace the nuclear warheads on some intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional weapons, a move that would make the missiles less lethal and therefore more palatable for politicians to consider using in preemptive strikes against terrorist groups.
The re-tipped missiles would offer the ability to accurately and quickly target such groups as the threat they pose is growing due to their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and other lethal weapons from proliferators, Rumsfeld said.
"We think that it's conceivable that five, 10 years from now there could be a target because of proliferation ... that would be able to be hit or deterred as the case may be by a conventional ICBM," he said.
Standing next to Ivanov, Rumsfeld said he hoped Russia would consider the same plan.
But Ivanov said Russia had concerns and that there may be other solutions for preemptive strikes, such as the use of intermediate-range missiles, now prohibited by a treaty agreement.
Rumsfeld also toured Fort Greely, home to one of the US' missile defense installations, ahead of another test of the system's ability to intercept long-range missiles.
The defense secretary climbed down into one silo and got briefings on on how the system is being improved.
Ten interceptors are in place in silos at Greely and an 11th was scheduled to be installed yesterday.