U.S. defense chief skeptical on North Korea talks

SEOUL Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:22am EDT

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd L) and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (3rd L) salute during a welcoming ceremony for Panetta before the 43rd annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) at the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in Seoul October 27, 2011.  REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd L) and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (3rd L) salute during a welcoming ceremony for Panetta before the 43rd annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) at the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in Seoul October 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said 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.

North Korea's foreign ministry said this week's second round of talks with the United States in Geneva had helped deepen each side's understanding about pending issues, and that they had agreed further confidence-building talks.

The Geneva meeting, which came after a first round talks in New York in July and two rounds of dialogue between the two Koreas, was aimed at restarting wider talks on ending Pyongyang's atomic activities in return for economic aid.

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."

The North said its position for resuming regional aid-for-disarmament talks remained the same -- that dialogue should restart without any conditions.

Washington and Seoul stood firm that the North live up to its past denuclearization pledges, including pulling the shutters down on its uranium enrichment facility and allowing the return of international inspectors to verify the halt.

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.

U.S. 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 limited, saying that "sometimes North Korea doesn't pay attention" to Chinese encouragement for Pyongyang to engage.

Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang said during a visit to Seoul Thursday that the Beijing would continue to try to help reconcile the neighbors. He added Pyongyang was willing to seek dialogue with South Korea and ease tensions on the peninsula.

Meanwhile, the pace of diplomacy between the six states involved in the regional talks has picked up sharply, with U.S. diplomat Kurt Campbell briefing officials in Seoul and the two Korean nuclear envoys visiting Russia.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)