U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed concern that internal politics in North Korea might result in more provocative steps, like the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in March.
Secretary Gates says North Korea presents "a very, very tough national security problem for the United States." The secretary made the comments Thursday evening in San Francisco.
"One of the many worries I have about North Korea is that they appear to be starting a succession process," said Robert Gates. "And I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim Jung Il's son, who wants to take over, has to earn his stripes with the North Korean military. And my worry is that that's behind a provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan. And so I think we're very concerned that this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans."
The secretary was referring to the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan in an attack that killed 46 sailors on board. An international investigation blamed the sinking on North Korea. Pyongyang denies the charge.
Since then, North Korea has threatened nuclear war in response to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, fired artillery into South Korean waters and captured a South Korean fishing boat.
U.S. and South Korean officials have expressed concern about the actions and say they will conduct more joint military exercises to ensure readiness and to send a message to the North not to do anything even more serious.
China has objected to the U.S. and South Korean response and has warned against sending an American aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea, between the China and the Korean Peninsula, as part of the planned exercises. Secretary Gates said China is concerned about instability on the peninsula that could result in a wave of North Korean refugees flooding into China.
"That's one of the reasons why they are unwilling to put much pressure on that regime, because maybe they, even more than we, believe it's very frail," he said.
Secretary Gates also again accused North Korea of continuing to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. And he said North Korea also foments trouble in other parts of the world by trying to smuggle missiles and other weapons to such countries as Burma and Iran, and to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.