• The Associated Press

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North Korea is less able now to invade the South than it was a decade or more ago but has become a more lethal threat to Asia and the world, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday in Tokyo.

“The character and priorities of the North Korean regime sadly have not changed,” Gates said as he neared the close of a weeklong tour of Asian capitals worried that Pyongyang might start a new war on the Korean Peninsula.

“North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago, but in other respects it has grown more lethal and more destabilizing,” Gates told students at Keio University.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology “threaten not just the peninsula, but the Pacific Rim and international stability,” Gates said.

He also made the case for the continued presence of tens of thousands of U.S. service members in Japan. U.S. bases in Okinawa have become increasingly unpopular because of noise pollution, overcrowding and the perception that Washington takes Tokyo for granted.

Most of the 49,000 U.S. service members in Japan are based in Okinawa.

But without those forces, “North Korea’s military provocations could be even more outrageous,” Gates said.

“China might behave more assertively toward its neighbors,” he added.

The United States fears the risk of war is rising between U.S. ally South Korea and the heavily militarized and increasingly unpredictable regime in the North, which the Pentagon also considers a looming threat to the U.S. mainland.

North Korea is blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, killing 46, and it shelled frontline Yeonpyong Island in November, killing four. The island sits in waters claimed by the North.

On Thursday, Gates signaled the U.S. will be flexible as Japan’s leaders try to blunt popular opposition to its presence.

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