August 13, 2010 / 5:09 AM / 9 years ago

Gates says Kim Jong-il's son seeks military "stripes"

A tourist looks north through a pair of binoculars at an observation post on South Korea's Baengnyeongdo, an island near the disputed maritime border with North Korea, northwest of Seoul, August 11, 2010. REUTERS/Park Ji-Ho/Yonhap

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday recent provocations by North Korea against the south were probably tied to ailing leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son seeking to earn his military “stripes.”

Gates, who was in South Korea last month, said one of his biggest worries about the North was that with the succession of the ailing leader’s son now apparently underway, there would be more provocations against its neighbor.

Relations across the divided peninsula have turned increasingly hostile after South Korea accused the North of sinking one of the South’s warships, the Cheonan, in March, killings 46 sailors.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim Jong-il’s son, who wants to take over, has to earn his stripes with the North Korean military,” Gates said at the U.S. Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco.

“My worry is that that is behind the provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan, and so I think we are very concerned that this might not be the only provocation from the North Koreans,” he added in response to a question over the threat posed by Pyongyang.

There has been growing concern in the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon over what they see as the North’s increasingly unpredictable behavior following the attack on the Cheonan, which Pyongyang denies.

Ailing ruler Kim Jong-il appears to be trying to engineer the succession of his youngest son as leader of one of the world’s most isolated countries, which has been pressing ahead with efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

North Korea, for its part, has repeatedly argued that it has no choice but to build a nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S. aggression.

Reporting by Sue Pleming; editing by Todd Eastham

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