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ARLINGTON, Va. — Adm. Timothy Keating said Wednesday that he doesn’t know what was on board a North Korean freighter bound for Myanmar that the Navy was shadowing earlier this month, or why it suddenly turned back.

But the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command acknowledged that he was “moderately concerned” that air and sea traffic between those countries may be used to transfer nuclear technology from one isolated regime to another.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Keating touched on worries about North Korea’s nuclear technology expressed a day earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a conference in Thailand.

For several weeks in June and July, the USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea shadowed a slow-moving North Korean freighter reportedly named the Kang Nam 1. On July 7, The Associated Press reported the ship had returned to port.

“I don’t know why they turned around,” Keating said. “It’s not crystal clear to anybody, to the best of my knowledge, outside of North Korea.”

The ship’s cargo remains unclear, the admiral said, but the important thing is that the Navy was able to track it.

“We were following it very carefully,” he said. “As it turns out, we did not do anything other than shadow the ship.”

Keating said the U.S. continues to monitor traffic in and out of North Korea, but would not say if the Navy was tracking any specific vessels.

“I’d rather not tell you about it,” he said, chuckling. “There is trafficking ... air and surface traffic moves between North Korea and many countries, several countries, including Burma — and we watch. Carefully.”

Keating said he had no insight into the reportedly failing health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il or a succession plan.

“What would happen if and when he cedes control or is no longer capable of exercising control? Don’t know,” Keating said. “I don’t think that is axiomatic that the departure of Kim Jong Il means a national security crisis.”

The admiral also discussed other regional concerns, saying he hoped relations between the American and Chinese militaries would open, following more frequent interactions with Pentagon and other Obama administration officials this year.

“We hope this is a clear signal on the part of the Chinese of their intentions to resume pure military to military dialogue,” said Keating.

The admiral, who is retiring this October, has not been to Beijing or received a senior-ranking Chinese official at PACOM headquarters in Hawaii in over a year, he said. And military-to-military relations have been on hold since the U.S. sold arms to Taiwan in 2008.

But Keating announced he will attend next week’s U.S.-China meetings at the State Department.

“We would rather have more frequent dialogue,” he said. “More importantly, we would rather have more robust dialogue, something substantive. There’s plenty of substance to discuss. Right now, it’s not going on.”

Keating, who graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1971, has commanded PACOM since March 2007.

In March, Gates recommended Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, to take over from Keating. Willard was formally nominated in June and is awaiting Senate approval.


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