But it’s still too early to tell whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will bend or shift toward more peaceful relations with the region or Washington.
“The bottom line is we still don’t know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future,” said Panetta, in a joint briefing with South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin at the Pentagon.
Panetta and Kim met for annual security talks, signing new agreements on space policy and reaffirming old promises to defend the peninsula 60 years after the armistice. Both men said they spent much time discussing North Korea, as reports circulated on Wednesday that North Korea had executed its vice army chief for drinking during the mourning period for the new ruler’s father, Kim Jong Il.
This week, a South Korean activist group launched balloons with propaganda fliers meant to float over North Korea. Panetta said it appeared the move did not provoke a hostile response from Pyongyang. Instead, the defense secretary listed the Pentagon’s more immediate worries.
“The concern we have is that they continue to prepare for missile tests, they continue to prepare for nuclear tests, they continue to engage in enrichment of uranium against all international rules,” Panetta said, “and so they continue to behave in a provocative way that threatens the security of our country and obviously of South Korea and the region.”
“And so its for that reason that I think I'ts extremely important that our two countries, working with other countries in the region, do whatever we can to ensure that its made clear that that kind of behavior that we’ve seen in the past is not the kind of behavior that we will tolerate in the present or in the future.”
"And to do that,” Panetta continued, “that’s one of the purposes of rebalancing to the Pacific region.”
Panetta said the U.S. will work with countries in the region, including China, to promote “security and prosperity,” calling for peace through strength.
“The hope is that by doing that, by acting with strength, that we can send a clear message to North Korea that it would be much more preferable for them to instead of behaving in a provocative way, instead of threatening their neighbors, if they would sit down and try to negotiate a resolution to these issues. We’ll continue to pursue that.”