WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscored U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security on Friday amid concerns about possible North Korean aggression after its ailing leader tapped his youngest son as his successor.
Cooperation between the governments of South Korea and the United States “sends a clear message to North Korea that it’s provocation and aggression will not be tolerated,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference after a meeting with his South Korean counterpart.
Ties between the Koreas have been especially strained since the sinking in March of the warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. South Korea accuses the North of torpedoing the vessel and has demanded an apology. Pyongyang denies any role.
The Washington visit by South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young came less than two weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, 68, unveiled his youngest son as his successor. The decision has raised concern about the possibility of instability or aggression during a transition.
“We cannot eliminate the possibility that there would be an instability situation in North Korea and such a situation would be a significant issue that would influence the national security of both countries,” Kim told reporters.
He said Seoul and Washington would “prepare for all possible contingencies in North Korea.”
Asked about the choice of Kim Jong-un to eventually succeed his father, who is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, Gates said the country appeared to have been moving in that direction for some time.
“Frankly, that’s the assumption we’re all working on, that he will in fact at some point take on that leadership role,” he said.
Gates said “it remains to be seen” whether the younger Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, would significantly alter the behavior of the reclusive communist state.
“There’s a lot of speculation about the circumstances that lay behind the sinking of the Cheonan, and whether other provocations may follow,” he added. “I think that our meeting today should reinforce what we said: that provocations will not be tolerated.”
The South Korean defense minister said North Korea recently had attempted to open a dialogue but talks were unlikely to make significant progress until Pyongyang acknowledged sinking the Cheonan.
“We need a recognition of North Korea’s role in the Cheonan incident and we need an apology from North Korea and a punishment of those responsible. And North Korea also must take clear measures that will prevent any further provocations of this sort,” Kim said.
“When these measures are taken, the dialogue between South and North will become more substantial,” he added.
North Korea’s move to push ahead with its nuclear arms program in defiance of international pressure has raised U.S. and South Korean concerns.
The defense ministers issued a joint communique urging the North to “carry out the complete abandonment of all its nuclear programs and pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
“North Korea’s nuclear and conventional weapons threat continues to be the focal point of our alliance’s deterrence and defense posture,” Gates said.
“We are committed to providing extended deterrence using the full range of military might, from our nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and ballistic missile defense.”
Editing by Eric Beech