SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday he is skeptical that diplomacy will push North Korea to give up its nuclear program, and he raised the prospect of the North's stance leading to "escalation and confrontation."
In a question-and-answer session with reporters after meeting with South Korean government leaders, Panetta said he was concerned that North Korea is deliberately alternating between periods of modest accommodation with the West and episodes of violent aggression, perhaps with no real intention of surrendering its nuclear ambitions.
Asked whether he is skeptical about a renewed effort by the Obama administration to explore a possible new round of international negotiations over the North Korean nuclear program, Panetta said, "We're not sure where those talks are headed at this point." Discussions held this week in Geneva by American and North Korean diplomats produced no apparent breakthrough.
"For that reason, I guess the word 'skepticism' would be in order," he said.
Separately, the State Department's top Asia policy official, Kurt Campbell, was in Seoul Thursday to brief officials on the Geneva talks. North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement saying the talks "helped deepen each other's understanding," and said both countries agreed to further talks on whether to resume the six-party denuclearization talks involving North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.
Panetta said China "can do more" to push North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
"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," he said. China is a longtime North Korean ally.
"I know that sometimes they make that effort and sometimes North Korea doesn't pay attention."
Panetta's visit to South Korea — his first as secretary of defense — is part of a broader Obama administration effort to shore up South Korean confidence in a military alliance that has endured for six decades. Panetta met with the South Korean defense and foreign affairs chiefs and paid a courtesy call on President Lee Myung-bak.
In parallel talks, the new chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and top officers from the U.S. Pacific Command met with top South Korean military officers for an annual review of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. Panetta is to attend a second round of alliance talks Friday before flying home.
Panetta has called the North "reckless" and a "serious threat" to peace on the Korean peninsula, which exploded in war in 1950 and drew the U.S. and other nations into a bloody three-year conflict against the North and China.
In his session with reporters Thursday, Panetta was asked what can be done to break a cycle of North Korean behavior in which it alternately makes gestures of accommodation to the West, followed by provocations.
"The cycle ultimately has to be broken," he said. "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."
Among the maneuverings that influence U.S. thinking about the security threat posed by North Korea is the process now under way in which the supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, is expected to turn over the reins of power to his son, Kim Jong Un, a newly minted four-star general believed to be in his late 20s. He would be the third-generation leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.
North Koreans are expecting to learn more about Kim Jong Un next year when the nation celebrates one of its biggest historical milestones: the 100th anniversary on April 15 of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
U.S. officials are unsure what timeline has been set for the leadership succession, but two senior American military officers in Seoul said Thursday it appears the process has slowed, possibly because Kim Jong Il's health problems seem to have eased. The officials spoke to a group of reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
U.S. and South Korean officials believe Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August 2008 that kept him out of the public eye for months.
The officials, who are privy to the latest intelligence assessments, said North Korea's recently more accommodating approach to the U.S. is judged to be only a tactical maneuver, likely to be followed next year by North Korean demands for concessions. That would follow a decades-long pattern of North Korean behavior in which unmet concessions lead to a period of provocations, such as the 2006 nuclear test that came just months after the North cut off nuclear disarmament talks.
The U.S. officials declined to say whether they believe the North can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons, but their analysis of the North's basic approach to the West strongly suggested they do not expect it to change course.
At the same time, the North is making gains in certain aspects of its conventional military, the officials said. It has expanded its commando force — meant to infiltrate the South and conducted rear-area sabotage and assassination in the event of war — and kept up its creation of underground facilities to protect key weapons and command centers from outside bombardment.
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