U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday said North Korea represents a "serious threat," amid skepticism about the long-term benefits of renewed contact with the Stalinist regime, Reuters reported (see GSN, Oct. 25).
Panetta spoke in Seoul one day after Obama administration diplomats completed a second round of talks with North Korean representatives. The meetings are aimed at addressing a number of issues, including the potential resumption of six-nation negotiations on North Korean denuclearization.
In commentaries published this week in Japanese and South Korean newspapers, Panetta has characterized the North as "reckless" and a "serious threat."
Speaking to gathered U.S. and South Korean military personnel on Wednesday, Panetta said, "I come here because in many ways this is the front line."
A high-ranking defense official with Panetta told journalists it was crucial that armed forces readiness efforts be "aligned with where things are in the diplomatic process" in light of previous patterns of U.S.-North Korean relations.
"Our experience unfortunately has been that our North Korean friends go through cycles of diplomatic engagement and provocation and we need to be prepared for how that cycle may play itself out on the next turn," the unidentified official said.
Panetta and others worry that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's continuing process to transfer leadership to his youngest son and presumed successor, Kim Jong Un, could lead to new aggressive acts.
"I think we always have to be prepared, from a security point of view, to deal with the likelihood that as succession develops in North Korea that it could lead to greater provocations," the secretary said to journalists on Friday (Phil Stewart, Reuters I, Oct. 26).
Panetta promised that Washington would continue to "ensure a strong and effective nuclear umbrella over the ROK (South Korea) so that Pyongyang never misjudges our will and capability to respond decisively to nuclear aggression," Agence France-Presse reported.
Washington and Seoul are also collaborating to counter the North's ballistic missiles, the Pentagon chief said (see GSN, Oct. 25).
The secretary is using his three-day trip to Seoul to draw attention to the joined capacity of the United States and South Korea to deter acts of North Korea aggression and to respond with heavy force should deterrence be unsuccessful, according to the high-ranking defense official (Mathieu Rabechault, Agence France-Presse I/Sin Chew Jit Poh, Oct. 26).
Even as Panetta warned of the possibility for new North Korean provocations, U.S. defense officials said Pyongyang seemed to be more open to reaching an agreement that would allow the long-dormant six-nation talks to resume, the New York Times reported.
The six-party talks focused on irreversible North Korean denuclearization encompass China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia and the United States. They last took place in December 2008.
Though U.S. diplomats taking part in this week's talks in Geneva, Switzerland, said they were able to bridge some differences over conditions for relaunching the negotiations, a defense official said it was not yet possible to know whether Pyongyang was sincere about returning to a process that would shutter forever its nuclear weapons program.
"We’re in the process of testing whether [the] North Koreans are serious about denuclearization," the official said.
Washington and Seoul are demanding the North halt all nuclear work, particularly its enrichment of uranium, and allow expelled international monitors back into the country before multinational negotiations are resumed. Pyongyang is insisting there be no conditions to relaunching the talks.
The timing of any potential future direct or multinational discussions with North Korea has not been determined (Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times I, Oct. 26).
The lead North Korean official to the Geneva talks, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, struck a positive tone in discussing future meetings, the Times reported. The two sides will reconvene "as soon as possible," he said, adding he would like to see a follow-up meeting occur before the year is over.
Kim's opposite in the bilateral talks, outgoing U.S. special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth, was more circumspect in his comments about potential future talks. North Korea and the United States will process the events in Geneva and maintain contact via "the New York channel," the U.S. negotiator said in reference to North Korea's mission to the United Nations (Nick Cumming-Bruce, New York Times II, Oct. 25).
A high-ranking State Department official indicated that a new round of talks was not likely in the near future, Reuters reported.
"We do think it's going to be not a matter of days and weeks but probably a matter weeks and months before we're going to be able to really know where we're going next on this," the anonymous official told journalists. "We expect it to take some time for them to digest what we talked about in Geneva" (Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters II, Oct. 25).
During a stop in Tokyo, Panetta said the Defense Department was "looking at increasing exercises in the Pacific region" that would include joint maneuvers with regional allies, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Both North Korea and China have objected to U.S. military maneuvers in the region.
The defense secretary did not specify if the Pentagon intended to field additional aircraft carriers and military personnel in the region (Adam Entous, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26).
South Korea's president on Wednesday urged Beijing to be a mediator for peace in the region, AFP reported.
"I hope China will continue to play an important role in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and leading North Korea to reform and openness," Lee Myung-bak said during a meeting with visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
Earlier this week, Li met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and urged the North to take steps to improve its relations with other nations.
Also on Wednesday, the South's lead negotiator to the six-nation talks departed for Moscow, where he is to meet with his Russian equivalent and other top officials.
"At this time when two rounds of inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. meetings have been wrapped up, we will review the progress and discuss future moves," South Korean nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam said to the Yonhap News Agency (Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, Oct. 26).