Pentagon chief holds talks with top S. Koreans

October 27, 2011 - 6:10 AM
South Korea Asia Panetta

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, shakes hands with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. Panetta, on the final leg of a weeklong Asia tour, is holding a series of meetings with South Korean leaders to offer assurances of American support in the face of North Korean threats. (AP Photo/Jo Yong-hak, Pool)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met Thursday with top South Korean leaders to offer personal reassurances of American support and security cooperation against the threat of attack by communist North Korea.

The talks, on Panetta's first trip to Asia as Pentagon chief, are part of a broader Obama administration effort to shore up South Korean confidence in a military alliance that has endured for six decades. Panetta met with the South Korean defense and foreign affairs chiefs and paid a courtesy call on President Lee Myung-bak.

In parallel talks, the new chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and top officers from the U.S. Pacific Command met with top South Korean military officers for an annual review of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. Panetta is to attend a second round of alliance talks Friday before flying home.

Panetta has called the North "reckless" and a "serious threat" to peace on the Korean peninsula, which exploded in war in 1950 and drew the U.S. and other nations into a bloody three-year conflict against the North and China.

The State Department's top Asia policy official, Kurt Campbell, was in Seoul to brief officials on this week's U.S.-North Korea talks in Geneva on prospects for resuming international negotiations over the North's nuclear program.

"It's fair to say that we did make some progress" in Geneva, Campbell told reporters, adding, "There were no breakthroughs."

North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement Thursday saying the Geneva talks "helped deepen each other's understanding," and saying both countries agreed to further talks on whether to resume the so-called six-party denuclearization talks involving North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.

Among the maneuverings that influence U.S. thinking about the security threat posed by North Korea is the process now under way in which the supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, is expected to turn over the reins of power to his son, Kim Jong Un, a newly minted four-star general believed to be in his late 20s. He would be the third-generation leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.

North Koreans are expecting to learn more about Kim Jong Un next year when the nation celebrates one of its biggest historical milestones: the 100th anniversary on April 15 of the birth of Kim Il Sung.

U.S. officials are unsure what timeline has been set for the leadership succession, but two senior American military officers in Seoul said Thursday it appears the process has slowed, possibly because Kim Jong Il's health problems seem to have eased. The officials spoke to a group of reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

U.S. and South Korean officials believe Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August 2008 that kept him out of the public eye for months.

The officials, who are privy to the latest intelligence assessments, said North Korea's recently more accommodating approach to the U.S. is judged to be only a tactical maneuver likely to be followed next year by North Korean demands for concessions. That would follow a decades-long pattern of North Korean behavior in which unmet concessions lead to a period of provocations, such as the 2006 nuclear test that came just months after the North cut off nuclear disarmament talks.

The U.S. officials declined to say whether they believe the North can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons, but their analysis of the North's basic approach to the West strongly suggested they do not expect it to change course.

At the same time, the North is making gains in certain aspects of its conventional military, the officials said. It has expanded its commando force — meant to infiltrate the South and conducted rear-area sabotage and assassination in the event of war — and kept up its creation of underground facilities to protect key weapons and command centers from outside bombardment.