U.S. pivot meant to pressure North Korea, Panetta says; Kim Jung Un still a mystery

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. pivot to Asia is in part a move to pressure North Korea into ending its provocative behavior and rejoining international talks to end its nuclear pursuits. But it’s still too early to tell whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will bend or shift toward more peaceful relations with ...

KNS/AFP/GettyImages
KNS/AFP/GettyImages
KNS/AFP/GettyImages

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. pivot to Asia is in part a move to pressure North Korea into ending its provocative behavior and rejoining international talks to end its nuclear pursuits.

But it’s still too early to tell whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will bend or shift toward more peaceful relations with the region or Washington.

“The bottom line is we still don’t know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future,” said Panetta, in a joint briefing with South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin at the Pentagon. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. pivot to Asia is in part a move to pressure North Korea into ending its provocative behavior and rejoining international talks to end its nuclear pursuits.

But it’s still too early to tell whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will bend or shift toward more peaceful relations with the region or Washington.

“The bottom line is we still don’t know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future,” said Panetta, in a joint briefing with South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin at the Pentagon. 

Panetta and Kim met for annual security talks, signing new agreements on space policy and reaffirming old promises to defend the peninsula 60 years after the armistice. Both men said they spent much time discussing North Korea, as reports circulated on Wednesday that North Korea had executed its vice army chief for drinking during the mourning period for the new ruler’s father, Kim Jong Il.

This week, a South Korean activist group launched balloons with propaganda fliers meant to float over North Korea. Panetta said it appeared the move did not provoke a hostile response from Pyongyang. Instead, the defense secretary listed the Pentagon’s more immediate worries.

“The concern we have is that they continue to prepare for missile tests, they continue to prepare for nuclear tests, they continue to engage in enrichment of uranium against all international rules,” Panetta said, “and so they continue to behave in a provocative way that threatens the security of our country and obviously of South Korea and the region.”

“And so its for that reason that I think I’ts extremely important that our two countries, working with other countries in the region, do whatever we can to ensure that its made clear that that kind of behavior that we’ve seen in the past is not the kind of behavior that we will tolerate in the present or in the future.”

"And to do that,” Panetta continued, “that’s one of the purposes of rebalancing to the Pacific region.”

Panetta said the U.S. will work with countries in the region, including China, to promote “security and prosperity,” calling for peace through strength.

“The hope is that by doing that, by acting with strength, that we can send a clear message to North Korea that it would be much more preferable for them to instead of behaving in a provocative way, instead of threatening their neighbors, if they would sit down and try to negotiate a resolution to these issues. We’ll continue to pursue that.”

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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