US defense chief skeptical on North Korea talks

North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment facility last year that gives it a second route to making an atomic bomb.

Last Updated: Oct 27, 2011, 17:22 PM IST

Seoul: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday he was skeptical about the fate of the latest diplomatic push with North Korea and called on China to do more to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear programs.

The United States ended two days of meetings with North Korea on Tuesday, sounding somewhat upbeat about an eventual return to wider talks on ending Pyongyang`s atomic activities even as it acknowledged there was no breakthrough.

But Panetta, on his first trip to South Korea since taking over the Pentagon in July, said it was not clear to him where the talks were headed. He renewed warnings that the North was a serious threat.

"There`s an indication that some progress was made (in Geneva) but that they haven`t arrived at any agreements and we`re not sure where those talks are headed at this point," Panetta said.

"And so for that reason, I guess the word skepticism would be in order at this time as to what may or may not happen in those discussions."

Should Pyongyang again find engagement has run its course, analysts fear it could test another nuclear weapon or pick new fights with Seoul. North Korea was blamed for killing some 50 South Koreans in two attacks near their contested maritime border in 2010.

The North also unveiled a uranium enrichment facility last year that gives it a second route to making an atomic bomb.

"We always have to be vigilant in the way we approach North Korea because there is a history here of accommodation and provocation," Panetta said.

US military officials briefed reporters traveling with Panetta earlier in the day, warning that Pyongyang continued to make progress in its missile program as well as cyber warfare and other capabilities -- even as they said the extent of that progress was often difficult to measure.

China - Do More

Panetta, at the end of a swing through Asia that included trips to Japan and Indonesia, said China, North Korea`s closest ally, needed to do more to pressure Pyongyang to prove it was "serious about eliminating their nuclear program."

"There are moments when we think that they are urging North Korea to engage. But frankly, I think that China can do more to try to get North Korea to do the right thing," Panetta said.

At the same time, Panetta acknowledged that Beijing`s influence was sometimes limited, saying that "sometimes North Korea doesn`t pay attention" to Chinese encouragement for Pyongyang to engage.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is gradually preparing to be replaced by his son Kim Jong-un, and some experts warn that the succession of power could trigger more aggression by the North against the South, a concern shared by the US military.

But officials suggested the pace of the handover had slowed in recent months.

The elder Kim, 69, has made repeated trips abroad in the past year-and-a-half in what experts say is a sign of his improving health. He is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.

"There`s probably not the same sense of urgency (in succession) because Kim Jong-il`s health doesn`t appear to be deteriorating as it was some time ago," one US military official in South Korea told reporters traveling with Panetta.

Bureau Report