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North Korea's ability to fire a nuclear warhead at the U.S. will soon become an accepted reality, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNBC on Tuesday.
"I think that over the coming year, you'll see North Korea become accepted as having the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead on it to the United States. A lot of people already believe that they have that capability," he said.
Gates' comments come amid high tensions between the U.S. and North Korea as the regime of Kim Jong Un continues missile launches and nuclear tests despite international warnings to desist. North Korea sees the weapons as a way to defend itself against attack or attempts to overthrow Kim.
There is widespread concern that North Korea is close to being able to mount nuclear warheads on its missiles — but this has not been independently verified.
Gates, a former CIA director who was Pentagon secretary in the second Bush and Obama administrations, had no expectations that North Korea would suddenly give up its nuclear ambitions ahead of any discussions to de-escalate .
"If the precondition for any negotiation is a statement or an affirmation by the North Koreans that they're going to give up their nuclear programs, then we're going nowhere," he said.
Speaking to CNBC at the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai, Gates said the key was to initiate negotiations that first of all "minimizes the threat of an incipient crisis and then begins to alleviate the tensions somewhat."
Gates suggested that a way to start negotiations was to get North Korea to agree a "freeze" on the testing of both nuclear weapons and missiles "and then the beginning of a negotiation that over time could lead to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula."
"But anyone that thinks we're going to jump right to that is being very unrealistic," he said. "So the question is how do you keep tensions under control while that process plays out."
Attention has also focused on China as a potential broker for some kind of nuclear pact. The country is a traditional ally of North Korea and is its largest trading partner. However, it would not like to see regime change in North Korea and has previously signaled that it would defend the country if attacked by the U.S.
On the other hand, . Relations between the countries' leaders are reported to be frosty, particularly after North Korea conducted missile tests during China's hosting of high-profile events.
Gates said that while China has influence over North Korea, "it doesn't have control."
"(China is) responsible for 80 percent of the gross domestic product of the North, and they have the sole source of oil and coal and fuel for the North, but the Chinese concern is first and foremost about a collapse in the North that throws the control of the nuclear programs into question. But equally important, it would perhaps send millions of North Korean refugees into China," Gates said.
"Then they worry that if there is a collapse in the North, you end up with a South Korean-dominated, unified peninsula with the U.S. which is the worst of all possible worlds for China."
Gates believes that China was trying to get North Korea to play down its nuclear program but that Beijing .
"The Chinese would like to have a non-nuclear peninsula but they don't have the ability to make the North Koreans do that, except at very high risk of collapsing the whole regime, so they're walking a tight wire," he said.
"(The question is) how much pressure can you put on North Korea without bringing about a collapse, and they don't know the answer to that, and neither does anybody else," Gates added.
North Korea is expected to be a topic for discussion when South Korea's President Moon Jae-in travels to Beijing for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. The visit comes amid a row over Seoul's use of a U.S. anti-missile system that China believes uses a radar to see into its territory, Reuters reported.