Pacom Commander: North Korea Remains Central Concern

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 2011 — North Korea’s chal­lenges to Asia-Pacif­ic secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty were most acute in 2010, but remain a cen­tral con­cern for U.S. Pacif­ic Com­mand, Pacom’s com­man­der said today.

North Korea’s nuclear pro­gram and mil­i­tary objec­tives are a Pacom focus, and the command’s peo­ple work with­in the U.S. gov­ern­ment and with region­al part­ners to see North Korea “change tra­jec­to­ry,” Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard told reporters at the For­eign Press Cen­ter here.

In March 2010, North Kore­an forces sank the South Kore­an ship Cheo­nan, killing 46 South Kore­an sailors. In Novem­ber, North Korea launched an artillery attack on Yeon­pyeong Island, killing two South Kore­an marines and two civil­ians. In the wake of those attacks, the atti­tude of South Korea’s lead­ers and peo­ple has “fun­da­men­tal­ly changed,” Willard said.

“There is very strong … intol­er­ance at this point for any fur­ther provo­ca­tions,” he added.

Kim Jong-un’s rise to promi­nence as North Korea’s like­ly next ruler, fol­low­ing his father, Kim Jong-il, may mean fur­ther provo­ca­tions will come, Willard said.

“In the past, suc­ces­sion has come with provo­ca­tion as the new lead­er­ship has attempt­ed to estab­lish their bona fides with the North Kore­an mil­i­tary,” the admi­ral said.

Kim Jong-un’s promi­nence dur­ing the 2010 attacks “was not lost on us,” Willard said. “The prospects that he could be some­how account­able in a next provo­ca­tion [are] impor­tant to under­stand as well,” he added.

Kim Jong-il’s health may large­ly deter­mine the tim­ing of future attacks, the admi­ral not­ed.

“We watch North Korea close­ly, as you would expect us to,” Willard said. “We try to deter­mine the suc­ces­sion dynam­ics that are ongo­ing, espe­cial­ly as we approach 2012, which the North Kore­ans have declared as an aus­pi­cious year for them­selves and what that may por­tend in terms of Kim Jong-un’s lead­er­ship posi­tion.”

North Korea con­duct­ed nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. In Jan­u­ary, then-Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said he believed North Korea would devel­op an inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile that would be a “direct threat” to the Unit­ed States with­in five years.

Willard said mem­bers of his com­mand watch North Korea’s nuclear devel­op­ments “very care­ful­ly.”

“We are con­cerned … that [Kim Jong-il] will con­tin­ue to pro­mote his bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams, as well as his weapon pro­grams,” the admi­ral said. “It’s very much the sub­ject of the dis­cus­sions that are going on right now between the Unit­ed States and [North Korea], and I think South Korea and [North Korea] as well.”

In response to a ques­tion on a pos­si­ble U.S. sale of Glob­al Hawk sur­veil­lance vehi­cles to South Korea, Willard said he has fre­quent dis­cus­sions with South Kore­an offi­cials about their capa­bil­i­ties and “the poten­tial for U.S. pro­cure­ment of defense arti­cles that can ser­vice their needs.”

“There are dis­cus­sions ongo­ing with regard to sur­veil­lance capa­bil­i­ties in the South, and I think the Unit­ed States, as you know, is very guard­ed about these high-tech capa­bil­i­ties being pro­vid­ed as defense arti­cles. So that dis­cus­sion is, in fact, occur­ring,” the admi­ral said, not­ing the coun­tries’ strong alliance.

“When you con­sid­er … the fact that we have 30,000 troops in the Repub­lic of Korea and we are very, very close­ly aligned with the Kore­ans in terms of all our mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties, the prospects that our high­ly tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties could ulti­mate­ly be part of a for­eign mil­i­tary sale is a con­sid­er­a­tion,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)