United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was outspoken and candid in his remarks Monday, October 24, concerning the American positions toward China and North Korea.
Speaking at the Yokota Air Base, outside Tokyo, Japan, Panetta gave renewed assurances that the U.S. will maintain a “strong posture” in the Pacific, partially because of, rather than in spite of, new defense cuts in Iraq, and Afghanistan. There has been concern in Japan as to possible reductions. Panetta told the assembly that “We are not anticipating cutbacks in this region. If anything we are going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific.” According to former CIA Director Panetta, the withdrawal from Iraq, and the gradual drawdown in Afghanistan will enable the U.S. to shift more attention to the Asia-Pacific region.
There were questions at the Yokota conference regarding China’s ongoing investments in new technologies, including an extended aircraft carrier program, a buildup in stealth fighter jets, and development in the area of anti-ship ballistic missiles. Panetta expressed intolerance toward what he called China’s “secretive expansion of its military power.”
Panetta has addressed an ongoing need to hold a six nation conference, to include North Korea, about matters critical to the region. In a statement published Monday in Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper, prior to his arrival at Yokota Air Base, Panetta wrote of common challenges in the region. North Korea, he wrote, continues to engage in “reckless and provocative behavior” by its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles which “pose a threat not just to Japan but to the entire region.” These serious words issue as U.S. and North Korean officials are meeting in Geneva for talks aimed at determining Pyongyang’s sincerity about returning to nuclear disarmament talks. Japan, with U.S., China, Russia and South Korea, are concerned about the nuclear capacity of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, and have jointly attempted to secure a promise from the North Korean administration to reverse its nuclear arms program.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has on several occasions indicated a willingness to participate in six nation talks, on issues regarding disarmament, but while China and Russia accept his good intentions, which Kim Jong-Il links to pleas for massive aid, security assurances, and for food and fertilizer for a hungry North Korea, the South at Seoul, and the United States doubt Kim’s sincerity, and demand positive action as a precondition to continuation of talks.
Kim Jong-Il is sickly and ageing, has a fear of air travel, and prefers to travel by armored train. During August, Kim Jong-Il visited Russia and China in his private train, a gift to his father from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He met at that time with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and indicated a willingness to recommence six nation talks without precondition.
The newly installed commander of American forces in South Korea, U.S. Army General James Thurman, was among the latest to express concern about Pyongyang’s development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. “I believe North Korea’s growing asymmetric capabilities increasingly threaten peninsular and regional stability,” he said.
The on-again, off-again talks have been stalled since December, 2008. Since that time the North has tested nuclear weapons and missiles, gestured proudly to a capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade, and has made attacks killing South Korean civilians and military personnel. Much of the hostility rests with Pyongyang’s refusal to accept a mid-Korea dividing line between North and South, at the 38th Parallel, as reaffirmed at the ending of the Korean War in 1953.
Hesitancy in reestablishing diplomatic dialogue has shifted toward South Korea. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, speaking at a conference in Seoul, said Pyongyang must abide by previous promises to denuclearize before any new round of six-party talks can resume. The U.S. has about 47,000 troops in Japan with about 28,000 in South Korea; as mentioned earlier, dignitaries are now discussing in Geneva the matter of the recommencement of six nation talks. There appears to be some optimism in that regard.