U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: “North Korea Poses ‘Very Real’ Threat”

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea poses a “very real” threat to peace and is likely to mount fresh attacks on South Korea unless a strong deterrent is in place, the top U.S. military officer said July 14.

In comments delivered at a time of high cross-border tensions Adm. Mike Mullen said Pyongyang had also given no indication it would drop its nuclear ambitions.

“The threat (from the North) remains very real,” Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff told pool reporters after attending the inauguration of a new commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.

“North Korea shows no signs of relenting in pursuit of its nuclear capabilities, and I’m not convinced that they won’t provoke again.”

Mullen began his Asian tour in Beijing, where he said he urged China “to play a leadership role” in restraining its ally the North.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have flared since the South accused the North of torpedoing one of its warships with the loss of 46 lives in March 2010.

The North denied the charge but last November shelled a border island and killed four South Koreans, including two civilians. The attack briefly sparked fears of war.

In recent weeks, the North’s military has threatened reprisals for anti-Pyongyang signs displayed by the South’s troops.

It also vows to hit back for the now-banned use by some Seoul military units of portraits of the North’s ruling family as shooting-range targets.

Mullen said U.S. and South Korean forces “have a sense of urgency to essentially work on planning to deter the North from further provocations. Whether they will be deterred or not, that’s to be seen.”

Earlier on July 14, Army Gen. James Thurman took over as commander of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and vowed to counter any provocations.

He will also head the United Nations Command, a legacy of the 1950-53 war in which the U.S. spearheaded a UN force defending the South, and the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command.

Thurman, quoted by Yonhap news agency, said both Seoul and Washington are “prepared to honor our commitments, provide stability, deter conflict and, if we must, fight and win.”

The general said the alliance “stands ready to counter any provocation intended to destabilize the Korean peninsula.”

Mullen told reporters that both the North’s leadership succession plan and a major anniversary next year are factors in its behavior.

Leader Kim Jong-Il is preparing his youngest son, Jong-Un, as eventual successor. Some analysts believe the son’s role may be formally announced next year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding president Kim Il-Sung.

Kim’s regime has vowed to create a “great, powerful and prosperous” nation to mark the anniversary of his late father’s birth.

Mullen said the succession plan was “not an insignificant part of the whole provocation cycle from my perspective, and if you look back historically to other succession timeframes.”

But he said last year’s attacks created a greater sense of urgency for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. “And the expectation, at least from my perspective, is that unless the leadership in the North is deterred, they will continue to do that (attack).”

China is the sole major ally and economic lifeline for the impoverished North. With Beijing’s growing power, increased capabilities and economic growth “comes responsibility for regional stability and global stability,” Mullen said.

He said he stressed during his Beijing talks the need to create conditions for stability in North Korea, but even China’s influence with its ally was limited.

“I believe that China certainly has influence in Pyongyang, but…its not an infinite amount of influence,” Mullen said.


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