Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Tuesday that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile and said that, combined with its expanding nuclear program, the country "is becoming a direct threat to the United States."
Gates is a former CIA director, and his statement reflected both a new assessment by U.S. intelligence officials and his own concern that Washington had consistently underestimated the pace at which the North was developing nuclear and missile technologies, officials said.
Gates' remarks, made just an hour after he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, may have been partly intended to convince China that the Obama administration no longer regards the North as a concern only in the region.
"The Chinese are always talking about their 'core interests' and threats they may have to respond to," said one U.S. official. "They needed to hear that we have a few, too."
While Gates called the missile situation a "real concern," he said he expected North Korea to be able within five years to develop only a small number of ICBMs.
In the first visit to Yemen by a U.S. secretary of state since 1990, Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration wants to help the country do more than hunt down terrorists.
"I want to be frank about the fact that there are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory today," she told an audience of legislators, business people and students in San'a, the capital. "Stopping these threats would be a priority for any nation, and it is a priority for us."
At the same time, she said, the United States is ready to help Yemen with problems like its dwindling oil and water supplies.
Arriving from Dubai under a cloak of secrecy, Clinton spent barely seven hours in Yemen.
Vice President Joe Biden met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and promised a lasting U.S. commitment.
At a joint news conference, Biden promised Karzai that the United States would continue to provide aid and military training beyond the planned transition deadline of 2014, "if the Afghan people want it."
Biden made the unannounced visit to check on the war's progress.