“I think we’re in a period of prolonged provocation” with North Korea, a condition that began when Kim Jong-un took over as leader of the military dictatorship from his father in late 2011.
“What that means is, I think, that the risk of miscalculation is higher, and I think the risk of escalation is higher,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to Beijing this week, where Pentagon officials have sought China’s help in convincing Mr. Kim to ratchet down his confrontational rhetoric.
In recent weeks members of Congress have accused China, North Korea’s only ally and largest provider of food aid, of not doing enough to rein in Kim.
General Dempsey says that on the heels of talks this week with his counterparts in the Chinese military, he is convinced that they are as worried about the dictator’s behavior as US officials are.
“I will leave here with the belief that the Chinese leadership is as concerned as we are with North Korea’s march toward nuclearization and ballistic missile technology, and they have given us an assurance that they are working on it, as we are,” he said.
The question what the international community should do to try to rein in Kim has become more urgent since February, when North Korea conducted its third test of a nuclear weapon. Some analysts suggest that the young Kim may be difficult to sway, especially if a desire to consolidate his position among his own country's military elites is the driving force behind bellicose actions such as ordering missile and nuclear tests.
On Tuesday, the state-controlled North Korean newspaper rejected any suggestion that the country would consider giving up its nuclear program as a precondition of engaging in talks with the United States.
If North Korea “sits at a table with the US, it has to be a dialogue between nuclear weapons states,” it wrote, “not one side forcing the other to dismantle nuclear weapons.”
The chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Gen. Fang Fengshui, said Monday that “there is a possibility that” a North Korea will conduct fourth nuclear test.
China has long maintained that the Korean Peninsula should be nuclear-free. General Fang added that “we are totally opposed” to a nuclear test by North Korea. “We ask all sides to work on the North Koreans to stop the nuclear test and to stop producing nuclear weapons.”
Dempsey, for his part, said that if North Korea were to go forward with a fourth nuclear test, “our response to past events is pretty clear. We denounce their path.”
The US military posture is one of defense, he added. “And if they were to launch, we do have the capability to defend ourselves, our people, our facilities.”
That said, “We think there’s still time for North Korea’s leaders to back away from further provocations, and we certainly hope they take the opportunity to do so.”