SAN FRANCISCO — With North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly in poor health, the succession process may be driving the nation’s increasingly dangerous behavior, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here last night.
Gates, speaking at the Marines’ Memorial Association’s George P. Shultz lecture series, also discussed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq with a capacity audience at the Marine’s Memorial Theater.
The ailing dictator’s son wants to take over, Gates said, but he “has to earn his stripes by the North Korean military.”
“My worry is that’s the provocation behind the sinking of the [South Korean frigate] Cheonan. We’re concerned this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans.”
The United States is working with all nations of the area to provide stability in the face of North Korea’s weapons proliferation activities and its nuclear program, Gates said. But China – North Korea’s largest partner – is reluctant because Chinese leaders are worried that a collapse of the North Korea government would send millions of refugees into China, he added.
“The fact is that North Korea continues to smuggle missiles and weapons to other countries around the world – Burma, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas – and they continue with their development of their nuclear program,” the secretary said.
Gates touted the increase in troops in Afghanistan, saying there are now 40,000 more coalition military personnel in the country than at the beginning of the year. “Thirty thousand of them are American, and almost 10,000 are from our partners – principally from our NATO partners,” he said.
The coalition contribution is significant, the secretary said. In 2007, the allies had roughly 17,000 troops in the country. “The numbers are now up to 50,000 troops, and they are in the fight,” Gates said. “A number of the national caveats have gone away, and they are being very effective partners.” Caveats are restrictions some countries place on how their troops can be used.
Gates also discussed U.S. diplomatic and military ties with Pakistan, and he accepted some of the blame for a “significant trust deficit” between the two nations. When he was the director of central intelligence, he said, the United States turned its back on Afghanistan when the Soviets left in 1989 and severed ties with Pakistan over the country’s nuclear program in 1992.
“To the Pakistanis, when we achieved our objective – the ejection of the Soviets – we turned our backs and left the Pakistanis holding the bag,” he said.
Pakistani leaders fear the United States will do the same thing once it reaches its objectives in Afghanistan, Gates said. “They had hedged over the last decade, trying to be in a position to deal with whoever might come to power in Afghanistan,” he added. “I think we are reducing the trust deficit.”
Pakistan is battling the Taliban and al-Qaida with 140,000 troops in battle with the terror groups along the border with Afghanistan, Gates told the audience. “What we need to do is affirm for the Pakistanis that we will be a reliable, strategic partner for the long term and that we will not walk away from Afghanistan,” he said. “And when the fight is over in Afghanistan, we’re still going to stay there and provide the kind of development aid and military training and so on that is needed.”
The flooding of the Indus River and its tributaries complicates matters, the secretary acknowledged. “The flooding, in terms of the number of people affected and its economic consequences, is several times worse than the earthquake in 2005,” he said. “How much this will impact Pakistan and its army remains to be seen. That’s one of the reasons President Obama has asked us to lean very far forward in providing as much help as we can.”
The secretary said he has served every president since Lyndon Johnson, and that in his career, Iran has proved “the most frustrating and challenging national security problems the United States has faced.” If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, he said, an arms race will ensue in the region.
“To have a proliferation problem in the most volatile part of the world cannot be a good development,” he said. “On the other hand, I think – as we’ve seen in Iraq – that every war is unpredictable and has unintended consequences and is more difficult than people expect. I think a military attack upon Iran would have enormous consequences in a variety of ways.”
Still, an attack remains an arrow in the quiver, the secretary said, and Obama needs all options open.
“All the evidence … shows the new round of sanctions is really beginning to bite on the Iranians,” the secretary told the audience. Iranian leaders hate to be isolated, he said, and they are being isolated. Now, he added, countries in the region and elsewhere are tightening the sanctions on Iran, and that could have an effect.
The only long-range solution to the problem is for the Iranian government to decide that its nuclear program diminishes their country’s security rather than enhancing it, Gates said. In the meantime, he added, the United States is working with allies in the area to provide missile defense and to keep the diplomatic front open.
In Iraq, Gates said, said the withdrawal of American troops is going well. Violence in Iraq is at the lowest level since 2003, he said, and while some isolated groups continue to try to derail progress, they are not successful. Meanwhile, he said, Iraqi political leaders are working to set up a coalition government. “They are not shooting at each other; they are negotiating,” he said. “We figured it would take months to put together a government.”
The secretary also looked to the future.
“Consider this: An Iraq in 10 years could be producing as much oil as Saudi Arabia,” he said. “It could be a very rich country. If it is able to sustain the democracy it has today, I think it could change the entire equation in the Middle East.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)