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)