TOKYO –  South Korea would be within its rights to retaliate if North Korea mounts an attack, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, but the United States wants Seoul and its neighbors to try to head off a North Korean provocation that could lead to war.

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

“It’s a long-standing principle that every country has the right to protect itself and defend itself against an unprovoked attack,” Gates said following discussions with Japanese political leaders keyed to the rising threat of war on the Korean peninsula.

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