South Korean and U.S. officials are expressing renewed concern about North Korea. The concern comes as there are indications the power transition in the reclusive communist state is accelerating and that Pyongyang has completed a new missile test launch facility.
Military and government officials in Seoul and in Washington say they are closely monitoring North Korea. They say there is heightened concern of possible violence, given Pyongyang’s history of belligerent action in the years before the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sun, prepared to hand power to his son, Kim Jong Il.
Regional analysts note that Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, is being more prominently featured in official activities and is quickly moving up the leadership ranks. His father, believed to be beset by health problems, celebrated his 69th birthday Wednesday.
South Korea’s prime minister, presiding over an annual defense meeting Friday of top military and government officials, warned of possible incidents because of Pyongyang’s economic hardship and diplomatic isolation. Kim Hwang-sik called on the South’s military to be "fully prepared" to respond to attacks from the North.
The top U.S. military commander in the Pacific, Navy Admiral Robert Willard, said Thursday that any provocative moves toward South Korea could be part of the leadership transition in Pyongyang.
"Our concerns are that we're in a period of a compressed timeline for Kim Jong Il to train Kim Jong Un in these coercive measures and that we may very well be facing a next provocation in months and not years," Admiral Willard said.
North Korea is blamed for sinking a South Korean navy ship last March in the Yellow Sea. In the same waters, eight months later, it shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.
Pyongyang denies being involved in the ship sinking and says it fired on the island only because South Korean troops had fired into waters the North claims.
VOA this week reported that North Korea appears to have completed construction of its second launch site, which could be used to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Admiral Willard says the United States is watching the site, although he has received no information a launch from the new facility is likely in the short term.
"This is a major concern of ours," he said. "And when you package that together with the provocative actions that we saw in 2010 and the complexities of succession that are currently ongoing in North Korea it should concern us all."
The admiral added he wants to "message Pyongyang that a next provocation will have serious consequences." He also noted that Seoul now has a "low tolerance" for such incidents.
Show of force
North Korea conducted nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009. It has attempted three times, without full success, to fire a long-range missile.
An annual U.S. South Korean military exercise begins February 28 and continues through April.
U.S. military officers say it will, in part, assess how to deter new actions by the North and help reduce South Korea’s vulnerabilities if it is attacked.
North Korea, however, says such exercises are preparations for an invasion of its territory, and considers them to be provocative.