WASHINGTON -- The United States Thursday warned of further provocations from North Korea within months as part of the ongoing effort by leader Kim Jong-il to cede power to his youngest son.
Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, however, told a forum here that he saw "no signs that I'm aware of that they're preparing for near-term missile tests."
Reports said that North Korea has completed the construction of a new sophisticated missile launch site on its western coast near the Chinese border in an apparent bid to test-fire another ballistic missile that can reach the mainland United States.
North Korea detonated nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, and conducted long-range missile tests three times - in 1998, 2006 and 2009 -- which were seen as a partial success.
"When you package that together with the provocative actions that we saw in 2010, and the complexities of succession that are currently ongoing in North Korea, it should concern us all," the commander said. "We may very well be facing the next provocation in months and not years."
Willard was discussing the North's shelling of a South Korean border island and the torpedoing of a South Korean warship that killed 50 people last year.
The North's recent provocations are widely believed to be linked to ailing leader Kim Jong-il's plans to transfer power to his third and youngest son, Jong-un, in an unprecedented third-generation hereditary power transition in any communist state.
The 28-year-old heir apparent, who like his father lacks a proper military background, is believed to be trying to rally support from the military, the only power base in the impoverished but nuclear-armed communist state, amid a chronic food shortage and the economic plight.
"2010 was a very difficult year with regard to the provocations," Willard said. "On the conventional side, there were two provocations in the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island that cost South Korean soldiers and civilians their lives. That has caused us to look very intently at North Korea with regard to next provocations."
The commander said such provocations nearly exhausted South Korea's tolerance.
"I think it has certainly got the attention of President Lee (Myung-bak) and the Republic of Korea government and the people of Republic of Korea with regard to testing their tolerance to put up with another provocation from the North," he said. "There is a great deal that we are doing both within the ROK and U.S. alliance and internationally to try to prevent occurrences like the experiences last December and earlier in 2010."
Willard said it is difficult to predict what the next provocation will be, but added, "So what we will do is we'll plan for it, attempt to shore up any vulnerabilities that we see and deter and certainly message Pyongyang that a next provocation will have serious consequences."
Faced with growing criticism of its feeble reaction to the Cheonan's sinking and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong, the Lee administration vowed to respond more sternly to any further provocations, including the use of air and naval forces despite concerns over an expanded warfare, and beefed up military personnel and equipment in the western front-line islands.
North Korea in recent weeks proposed inter-Korean rapprochement apparently to attract much-needed food and economic aid to the impoverished state, which has been subjected to tougher United Nations sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests in early 2009, through the resumption of six-party denuclearization-for-aid talks.
The talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, have been deadlocked for more than two years over the North's missile and nuclear tests and other provocations.
North Korea, however, walked out of preparatory talks last week to revive high-level inter-Korean military dialogue, citing South Korea's demand for an apology for the provocations.
China, North Korea's staunchest communist ally, wants the six-party talks to reopen as soon as possible without any conditions attached, while Seoul and Washington demand Pyongyang first apologize for last year's provocations.
Pyongyang is believed to have at least several nuclear weapons, with some experts saying it may have already developed nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles with the help of China or Pakistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that North Korea's missiles and nuclear weapons will pose a threat to the U.S. within five years. The defense chief urged North Korea to impose a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing to help revive stalled the six-party talks.
North Korea also revealed in November a uranium enrichment plant that could serve as a second way of building nuclear bombs in addition to its existing plutonium program, despite Pyongyang's claims it is producing fuel for power generation.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper said Wednesday that the North apparently has more uranium enrichment facilities than the one in its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of its capital Pyongyang, that was revealed last year. (Yonhap News)
美 태평양사령관 "北, 수개월 내 도발 가능성”
북한이 평안북도 동창리에 새로운 미사일 기지의 발사대 건설을 끝낸 것으로 밝혀진 가운데 로버트 윌러드 미국 태평양 사령관은 17일(미국 현지시각) “조만간 미사일 시험을 준비하는 징후는 없다”고 말했다. 그러나 윌러드 사령관은 북한이 향후 수개월안에또 다른 도발에 나설 가능성이 있다고 경계했다.
윌러드 사령관은 이날 워싱턴에서 열린 아시아 소사이어티 주최 ‘아태 지역 안보 유지와 안정’ 주제 간담회 및 외신기자클럽 회견에서 북한의 미사일 프로그램은 “주요한 우려사항”이라고 강조한 뒤, 단시일 내 북한이 미사일 발사에 나설 조짐은 없다고 말했다.
그는 북한의 새로운 미사일 기지의 구체적인 장소와 능력에 대한 언급을 자제한 채, “지난해 북한의 도발적 행동들과 북한 권력승계 과정의 복잡한 성격을 종합적으로 고려할 때 (북한 미사일은) 우리 모두에게 걱정거리임에 틀림없다”고 강조했다.
또 김정은으로의 권력승계가 ‘압축적인 일정’으로 진행되고 있다고 진단한 뒤, “수 개월내에 또 다른 도발에 직면할 수도 있다”고 우려했다.
그는 지난해 천안함 폭침과 연평도 포격도발로 북한의 추가 도발 가능성에 대해 면밀히 검토하게 됐다면서 미국은 한국과의 양자동맹 차원은 물론 국제적으로도 취약점을 보완하는 동시에 “다음에 도발을 하면 중대한 대가를 치르게 될 것”이라는 메시지를 분명히 하고 있다고 강조했다.
그는 과거 북한이 대통령 암살 및 청와대 습격 시도, 여객기 격추, 재래식 공격 등 다양한 방법으로 도발을 해왔기 때문에 앞으로 어떤 형태로 도발을 해올지 예단하기 어렵다고 밝혔다. 그러면서 북한의 추가 핵실험, 장거리 미사일 실험발사 가능성 역시 미 행정부 차원은 물론 국제적으로 대처해야 하는 북한의 추가 도발 유형이라고 설명했다.
한편 오는 28일부터 실시되는 ‘키 리졸브(Key Resolve)’ 한미 합동군사연습과 관련, 윌러드 사령관은 이 훈련은 한미 양군의 전투 준비태세를 점검하는 방어위주의 연례 야전 훈련으로, 북한의 도발을 억지하기 위한 측면이 있다고 설명했다. 그는 ‘키 리졸브’ 연습은 양국의 준비 태세를 유지하는데 필수적인 것으로, 이를 전폭 지지한다면서 내년에도 이 연습은 실시될 것이라고 말했다. (헤럴드경제)