BEIJING — In a major new assessment of North Korea, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Tuesday that the country is becoming a direct threat to the United States and was within five years of developing a missile with the potential of hitting Alaska or the West Coast.

Mr. Gates said that although he expected North Korea’s ability to be limited, he anticipated the country would still develop within that time frame a small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could at least potentially deliver nuclear warheads. “I don’t think it’s an immediate threat, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s a five-year threat,” Mr. Gates said.

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