WASHINGTON, May 20, 2010 — It is up to South Korea, not the United States, to determine how it will deal with a North Korean attack on one of its ships, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
Gates was asked by reporters at a Pentagon news conference whether a recent determination that North Korea sank the South Korean frigate Cheonan, killing 46 sailors on March 26, was an act of war.
“This was an attack on South Korea, and South Korea needs to be in the lead on the way forward,” he said.
Gates said the Defense Department supports the findings of a multilateral investigation into the attack that found a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the ship. “They’ve laid out some paths forward, and we will be consulting closely with them as they move forward.”
The military has not changed its normal readiness status in light of the findings, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the news conference. Mullen said he spoke with his South Korean counterpart yesterday, as well as with Navy Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
“We’re all focused on the stability of that region,” Mullen said. “Certainly, we’re concerned. They are a great friend and a great ally.”
Asked if U.S. forces are stretched too thin to increase operations in the area if needed, Gates said “absolutely not.”
“We’ve known for a long time that if there were problems in Korea, our main arms would be the Navy and the Air Force, and they are not stretched the way the Army and Marines are.” Gates and Mullen also took questions on several other hot spots around the world.
Asked about the latest NATO military campaign in Afghanistan, Mullen said the Kandahar campaign already is under way, and that leaders are not surprised at the increasing insurgent violence there.
“We expect this to be a tough year,” Mullen said. “The poppy season is over, and they’ve gone back to get their weapons. That violence would rise doesn’t surprise me at all.” The admiral added that he is optimistic about the Kandahar outcome. “We’ve got the right strategy and the right leadership,” he said.
Turning to Pakistan, Gates and Mullen said Pakistani leaders are fully on board with fighting terrorist groups in the country, and recognize they share that interest with the United States. Pakistan is planning to execute a mission in the volatile North Waziristan region, and has seven divisions and 140,000 troops there, they said.
“We now have a mutual interest in trying to stop this group, to stop them from carrying out attacks outside of Pakistan, especially in the United States,” Gates said.
On Iraq, Gates said the military is on track to complete President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce troop strength there to 50,000 by Sept. 1. Some of the drawdown was postponed due to the delayed national election in March, but, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, “has total flexibility” with how he wants to manage it, he said. Asked about the recount of Iraq’s election results, Gates said it was “a positive development, in that it reaffirmed the original count and the legitimacy of the election.”
Finally, on the United Nations resolution for sanctions against Iran, Gates said it is “somewhat stronger” than he expected. The resolution is important, he said, because it is a reminder of Iran’s isolation, and it provides a legal platform for countries and organizations such as the European Union to take more stringent actions of their own against Iran. There is evidence that the resolution is making an impact inside Iran, Gates said, noting the extent to which Iran is trying to keep it from passing. The resolution, coupled with any action by individual countries, “has the ability to change behavior” in the Iranian government, he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)