SINGAPORE (AP) – The U.S. defense chief urged Asian allies Saturday to consider tougher sanctions against North Korea, noting that past efforts to cajole the reclusive regime into scrapping its nuclear weapons program have only emboldened it.

North Korea’s yearslong use of scare tactics as a bargaining chip to secure aid and other concessions – only to later renege on promises – has worn thin the patience of five nations negotiating with Pyongyang, said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“They create a crisis and the rest of us pay the price to return to the status quo ante,” Gates told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defense and security officials. “As the expression goes in the U.S., I’m tired of buying the same horse twice.”

“There are other ways perhaps to get the North Koreans to change their approach,” Gates said. “I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about.”

The sharp statements were echoed by the South Korean defense minister and even China – North Korea’s strongest ally. Taken together, they reflect fears throughout the region that last week’s nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang could spiral out of control and lead to fighting.

The North said it would no longer honor a 1953 armistice truce with South Korea after Seoul joined a 90-plus nation security alliance that seeks to curb nuclear trafficking on the seas.

Additionally, the U.N. Security Council is drafting financial and military sanctions against North Korea as punishment for the weapons testing. Similar sanctions approved after Pyongyang’s 2006 atomic test have been only sporadically enforced, and largely ignored by China and Russia.

Gates warned North Korea against secretly selling its weapons technology to other rogue nations, saying the U.S. “will not stand idly by.”

Later, at what officials called the first-ever meeting among defense chiefs from the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Gates asked his counterparts to begin considering other steps against Pyongyang should the regime continue to escalate is nuclear program. The three military leaders did not discuss specific potential actions but U.S. officials who attended the half-hour meeting said any steps would be taken in self-defense.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said the talks “could not have come at a better time.”

“North Korea perhaps to this point may have mistakenly believed that it could be perhaps rewarded for its wrong behaviors,” Lee told reporters. “But that is no longer the case.”

Gates does not plan to build up American troops in the region, and said Saturday he currently does not consider North Korea to pose a direct military threat to the United States.

Earlier in the day, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the second-in-command of the General Staff of China’s military, told the security forum that Beijing “has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test.”

The Obama administration also announced it would dispatch a delegation Sunday to Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and possibly Moscow over the next week to discuss how to respond to North Korea.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on nonproliferation issues with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former top U.S. State Department official, said North Korea is likely to respond heatedly to whatever actions the U.S. and allies take to stem the weapons threat.

“North Korea’s responses to date have been so far above and beyond the normal tit-for-tat,” Fitzpatrick said Saturday. “If they again escalate, I think we could see some low-level conflict, some shooting incidents at sea. But then one can’t say, well, we can’t respond at all because North Korea might use it as a provocation. North Korea will use any response as a provocation.”

AP-ES-05-30-09 0754EDT

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