Panetta: US Should Tell North Korea Provocations Put Regime at Risk

The Biden administration should send a strong message to Pyongyang in response to North Korea’s recent missile tests, a former U.S. defense secretary said. 

Leon Panetta, secretary of defense and CIA director during the Obama administration, said the United States and its allies “must make clear that we’re not going to tolerate aggression” by the North Koreans, and “if they continue to take provocative actions, they are endangering themselves” and “putting their own regime at risk.”  

In an interview Wednesday with VOA’s Korean Service, Panetta said, “That, I think, needs to be the message that we continue to send” to the North Koreans – “that if they act this way, they are going to confront not only the United States but our allies.” 

North Korea test-fired what it claimed was a supersonic missile on Tuesday. The test followed its first test of the year conducted on January 5, which the regime claimed also was a supersonic missile.

Calling North Korea’s recent missile tests “very provocative,” Panetta said it would become “much more difficult to be able to defend against it” now that Pyongyang has raised the possibility of developing a hypersonic missile “that can go almost 10 times the speed of sound.”  

Status quo not possible 

“It’s very important that the administration not just assume (it) can take a status quo approach to North Korea,” Panetta said. “When you’re dealing with an adversary … your relations are either getting better or they’re getting worse.   

“Right now, it’s getting worse,” he said. 

In response to Panetta’s comments, the U.S. State Department told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that “the United States harbors no hostile intent” toward North Korea, and that it is “prepared to meet” with Pyongyang “without preconditions” for denuclearization talks.  

The spokesperson said Washington hopes Pyongyang will “respond positively” to its outreach as it continues “to consult closely with Republic of Korea, Japan, and other allies and partners about how to best engage” North Korea. 

In response to North Korea’s missile launches, the U.S. on Wednesday imposed sanctions targeting five North Koreans for procuring goods for the regime’s weapons programs. 

Panetta said, “The only way you get North Korea’s attention” for serious negotiations “is by taking steps that challenge North Koreans.” He suggested the U.S. and South Korea “reopen exercises of our military capabilities.” 

The U.S. had held off large-scale military exercises with South Korea since 2018 to accommodate denuclearization talks with the former Trump administration.  

Some analysts question whether a strong message from Washington would move Pyongyang toward talks.  

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said, “We have not offered any carrots” that “we can take away.” Gause continued, “North Korea has nothing to lose” and is “not going to pay any attention” to what the regime perceives as “empty threats” by the U.S. 

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, said North Korea is likely “to match any perceived provocation with an action of its own.”  

After the second test launch, North Korea warned on Friday, January 14 Pyongyang time, that it will take “stronger” action in response to the sanctions the U.S. imposed on the regime over its missile tests.

Consequences of failed policy 

Panetta said Pyongyang is likely to continue its nuclear and missile activities to raise tensions further. 

“It’s only a matter of time (until) they renew testing of an intercontinental missile and testing of their nuclear capabilities,” Panetta said. “The path we’re on right now, I don’t think this is a good path.”  

North Korea last tested a long-range missile and a nuclear weapon in 2017 while its leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump exchanged harsh rhetoric throughout the year. 

Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks unleashed at Kim that year drastically turned to showers of praise after the two held a historic summit in Singapore in June 2018. 

“President Trump was very naïve in the way he approached Kim Jong Un in thinking that somehow just through the strength of personality alone, they could arrive at a denuclearization agreement,” Panetta said.   

“I don’t think leaders ought to meet unless there is an effort by both countries to lay the groundwork for those discussions,” Panetta continued. 

Panetta thinks the Biden administration must deal with the consequences of Trump’s failed policy that focused on personal diplomacy with Kim. 

“The failure to achieve anything has led to the tension that we’re now facing,” he said. “Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out how does he get the attention of the world again,” he continued. “That’s why he’s conducting these tests.” 

China’s role 

Panetta suggested China could play a positive role in diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons despite Washington-Beijing rivalry.  

“The relationship has gotten a lot more tense between the United States and China, but I still think there’s a possibility that China might be able to serve as perhaps a go-between here to try to see if we can be successful at opening up discussions,” Panetta said. 

China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, approved sanctions on North Korea in 2016 and 2017 passed in response to its nuclear and missile tests.  

Jiha Ham of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report. 

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