U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday expressed doubt that engagement with North Korea would lead the isolated state to shutter its nuclear-weapon efforts, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Oct. 26).
In Seoul, where he was meeting with senior South Korean government officials, Panetta told journalists he was worried the Stalinist state was intentionally switching between diplomacy and acts of armed hostilities, possibly with no actual plan to ever suspend atomic arms activities.
"The cycle ultimately has to be broken. There is either going to be an accommodation where they decide to make the right decisions with regards to their future and join the international family of nations ... or, if they continue these provocations, then obviously that's going to lead to the possibility of escalation and confrontation," Panetta said.
Obama administration diplomats this week met for the second time in recent months with North Korean officials for talks aimed at resolving longstanding differences including the circumstances for relaunching a paralyzed multinational process aimed at Pyongyang's permanent denuclearization. The two-day session in Geneva, Switzerland, followed a similar July meeting in New York. Neither has produced major progress regarding new actions by the North to improve its standing with the international community.
"We're not sure where those talks are headed at this point," Panetta said. "For that reason, I guess the word 'skepticism' would be in order," he added.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry on Thursday said that the latest meeting "helped deepen each other's understanding" and that Pyongyang and Washington agreed to meet again to discuss prospects for relaunching the six-party talks involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States. The negotiations have not been held for nearly three years, a period during which the North conducted its second nuclear test and unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could be used to produce weapons material.
The U.S. defense chief said Beijing -- the North's top benefactor -- "can do more" to convince Pyongyang to accept denuclearization.
"There are moments when we think that they are urging North Korea to engage, but frankly I think China can do more to try to get North Korea to do the right thing," Panetta said. "I know that sometimes they make that effort and sometimes North Korea doesn't pay attention."
U.S. analysts are concerned that an ongoing transfer of power process from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to his youngest son and assumed successor, Kim Jong Un, could lead to new acts of aggression regime as a means of cementing the younger Kim's power base. The North is believed to be behind two 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
Two high-ranking U.S. officers in South Korea on Thursday said it seems that the change in leadership process has become more deliberate in pace, potentially as a result of improvements in Kim Jong Il's health.
Informed officials said Pyongyang's recent moves toward engagement are seen as a positioning stratagem that will likely be followed in 2012 with the North calling for new rewards.
Even as it reaches out to the West, North Korea is simultaneously building up its conventional armed forces, U.S. officials said. The isolated state also continues to construct subterranean complexes that can withstand aerial attacks and safeguard crucial arsenals (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Google News, Oct. 27).
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, also in South Korea on Thursday, said some headway was made in the Geneva talks but that "no breakthrough" was achieved, Agence France-Presse reported.
"I think it will be fair to say we did make some progress. There was no breakthrough," the State Department's top diplomat for Asian affairs said. "There is a substantial amount of work that needs to be done. No decisions have been taken about next steps."
"We clearly stated our position on presteps," he said without providing further specifics.
Washington and Seoul are demanding that Pyongyang halt all nuclear work, including the enrichment of uranium, as a precondition to relaunching the regional aid-for-denuclearization negotiations. The North is insisting there be no conditions.
Campbell is using his trip to Seoul to brief officials there, including Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Jae-shin, on the discussions in Geneva.
"One of the reasons that we are here is to begin the process of deep discussions with South Korea so that we can plot our course going forward (on nuclear issues)," he told reporters.
The senior State official said U.S. diplomats in Geneva underlined to their North Korean counterparts that Pyongyang should increase its contact with the South (Agence France-Presse I/Channel News Asia, Oct. 27).
The North Korean Foreign Ministry in its Thursday statement reaffirmed Pyongyang's support for a return to multinational aid-for-denuclearization negotiations but restated its opposition to any preconditions, AFP reported (Agence France-Presse II, Oct. 27).
A high-ranking South Korean official said this week's U.S.-North Korea discussions were a sign that the key players were focused on relaunching full nuclear negotiations, the Korea Herald reported.
"Skepticism is based on the assumption that North Korea will not agree on the key conditions (to resume dialogue)," the anonymous official said.
A different official in Seoul said the North must also allow expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to resume their monitoring work at the nation's atomic sites.
"There cannot be progress in a true sense until North Korea accepts key conditions," the official said.
The September 2005 joint statement agreed to by all participants of the six-party talks calls for Pyongyang to abide by process of confirmable nuclear disarmament in exchange for massive amounts of foreign aid and international security pledges (Shin Hae-in, Korea Herald, Oct. 26).
In Washington, the State Department on Wednesday said U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Glyn Davies had officially taken on the duties of full-time U.S. special envoy on North Korea. He replaces Stephen Bosworth, who occupied that position in a part-time capacity.
Davies is closing up work in Vienna, Austria, and is due back in Washington before the beginning of December (U.S. State Department release, Oct. 26).