US officials aren’t sure what motivated North Korea’s alleged attack on South Korean warship

By Anne Flaherty, AP
Thursday, September 16, 2010

US officials: Korea warship attack an ‘act of war’

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials on Thursday said they still weren’t sure what motivated an attack on a South Korean warship that was blamed on North Korea or who might succeed leader Kim Jong Il, calling Pyongyang a “black box” that U.S. intelligence has failed to crack.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, senior officials from the Defense and State departments said the attack was an “act of war” that may have been Pyongyang’s attempt to goad the U.S. into making concessions in future nuclear talks.

The attack also could have been retaliation for a November 2009 firefight with South Korea’s navy, or tied to “mysterious succession politics,” said Wallace Gregson, assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

“In fundamental ways, North Korea is still a black box,” added Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “We have some glimpses and some intelligence and the like, but the truth is — oftentimes in retrospect — some of that intelligence has proven to be wrong.”

The lack of insight into North Korea’s motivations, six months after it allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors, underscores the difficulty facing the U.S. in trying to rein in the communist regime. In addition to pursuing a nuclear weapons program, North Korea has tried to ship military technology to Iran, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, told the Senate panel that North Korea has more than 200 conventional long-range weapons systems capable of hitting Seoul without having to move weapons or ammunition.

While the U.S. could launch a counterattack, “I got to be realistic,” Sharp said. “We’re not going to be able to stop all that artillery, and there will be a lot of destruction if they choose to do that.”

Last year, Pyongyang pulled out of international talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program to protest criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch. Tensions escalated this spring with the attack on the South Korean warship.

An international investigation blamed North Korea for the sinking, but Pyongyang denied it was responsible.

On Thursday, Gregson said the U.S. wants to see “meaningful actions” by North Korea before international talks on its nuclear program are resumed.

“We in the Department of Defense believe that it has been North Korea’s history to create a crisis, to conduct an attack and then we make concessions to bring them back to the table for dialogue,” Gregson said. “We’re determined not to do that this time.”

When asked by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whether Kim’s youngest son might succeed him, Campbell acknowledged that the U.S. had no idea.

“I will just tell you that we have to be prepared for all circumstances — and I mean all circumstances,” Campbell said.

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