WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday it believes North Korea’s artillery attack on a South Korean island was linked to leader Kim Jong-il’s effort to pass power to his son and was not the start of a military offensive against South Korea.
The shelling on Tuesday was one of the heaviest attacks since the end of the Korean war in 1953 and has left Washington struggling to find a way to respond to Pyongyang’s aggression without tipping the peninsula into wider conflict.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, said China’s leadership was “absolutely critical,” given its unique influence on North Korea’s secretive leadership.
A U.S. aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday for military exercises with South Korea due to begin on Sunday, the kind of show of force that China has previously opposed.
The Pentagon said the exercises were not linked to Tuesday’s strike by Pyongyang. Instead, they were part of a series of previously announced drills that have been the centerpiece of U.S. military strategy to deter the North from future attack since July.
That strategy, by the Pentagon’s own admission, has failed to sway Pyongyang, however.
“Past exercises, sanctions, international condemnation — there have been any number of things that have been intended to curb the North’s aggression that, for whatever reason, the North has chosen to disregard,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
North Korea has entered a potentially long, unpredictable period of leadership transition, with the elevation of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, in September to the rank of general — in a clear sign he is the chosen successor.
Mullen, speaking ABC television talk show “The View,” called Kim Jong-il “a very unpredictable guy, a dangerous guy” who was trying to shore up support for his plans to eventually pass power to his son.
He has previously blamed the succession issue for the March sinking a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors.
“This (the artillery strike) is also tied, we think, to the succession of this young 27-year-old who’s going to take over at some point in the future,” he said.
The State Department called Tuesday’s attack a “one-off, premeditated act.” It marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.
“Without getting into intelligence matters, we don’t see that North Korea is ... preparing for an extended military confrontation,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Both Mullen and Crowley said China should take a leading role in resolving the crisis, which comes amid few signs of progress in efforts to relaunch long-stalled talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
“China is pivotal to moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction,” Crowley added.
“China does have influence with North Korea and we would hope and expect that China will use that influence, first to reduce tensions that have arisen as a result of North Korean provocations and then secondly (to) continue to encourage North Korea to take affirmative steps to denuclearize,” he said.
The attack also followed revelations over the weekend of a uranium enrichment facility — a second source of atomic bomb material in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Mullen called the revelation “a big deal,” renewing concerns about Kim Jong-il’s nuclear ambitions.
“So him with nuclear weapons, or his son, is a very dangerous outcome for the long-term. And it will at least continue to destabilize a really important part of the world,” Mullen said.
Editing by Jackie Frank