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SEOUL — North Korea is in an accommodating mood at the moment, but if history is a guide, it will swing back toward violent provocation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other defense officials said Thursday in the South Korean capital.

North Korean diplomats have been in talks with the United States this week in Geneva aimed at bringing the isolated communist nation back into multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. So far, no agreement has been reached, although U.S. representatives have said the talks have been mostly positive.

Whether it will amount to anything has yet to be seen, Panetta said.

“I guess the word skepticism is in order at this time as to what may or may not happen in those discussions,” he said.

Panetta, who met Thursday with top South Korean officials, including President Lee Myung-bak, said it was no time for the United States or South Korea to drop their guard. The North is pushing ahead to develop its conventional, nuclear and cyberwar capabilities, and remains a serious threat to world peace, he said.

“On one hand, we have to engage, and we have to try to seek the hope that ultimately they’ll do the right thing and join the international family of nations and take steps to try to improve the situation of their own people,” Panetta said. “But I think that we always have to be very cautious that, at the same time, they’re going to develop their nuclear capability.”

North Korea’s current tack, which includes revived diplomatic contacts as well as recently granting permission for the United States to retrieve the remains of servicemembers killed in the Korean War, is part of a well-defined pattern of behavior, senior U.S. military officials said Thursday.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military believes North Korea has four ways of interacting with the rest of the world: appeasement, demanding concessions, antagonism and outright provocation. The cycle has reliably repeated for a half-century, the senior officials said.

“They’re in the appease stage as we speak,” one official said. “The next stage that will come up is that they’ll begin to demand concessions when the diplomacy doesn’t work or things don’t move forward.”

And when the demands aren’t met, he said, the likely next step is antagonism of the international community through further missile tests or nuclear development.

The final, most severe stage in the U.S. paradigm for North Korean behavior includes actions such as the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, killing 46 troops, or the shelling of a border island later that year, killing four.

With each escalation and de-escalation, North Korea pushes further with its bad behavior, and then is rewarded when it returns to appeasement, the official said.

“I would argue that there’s been a lot of desensitization of the world because of this repetitive cycle, so each time they get away with a little bit more,” the official said.

So what is North Korea after? Military analysts believe the current round of appeasement is aimed at supplying foreign goods and currency for the impoverished country’s yearlong “Strong and Prosperous Nation 2012” celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, founding leader of the autocratic state.

“We believe that … they are doing everything they can to have gifts and food for all of their population, and so they’ve remained quiet to attempt to get the [United Nations’] World Food Programme [and] to get nations to contribute everything from cement and steel to foodstuffs,” another senior military official said.

Breaking the cycle, the officials said, will require disciplined diplomacy that does not reward North Korea simply for halting destructive behavior.

Base Relocation

Panetta also discussed U.S. base realignment with South Korean leaders, particularly the relocation of thousands of troops now stationed around Seoul to an enlarged Camp Humphreys farther south. A senior military official Thursday said work is well under way on the expansion.

“You won’t believe the amount of dirt that’s gone in and building that’s going on,” he said.

The move would put U.S. servicemembers beyond the range of North Korean artillery, but a group of influential U.S. senators earlier this year recommended saving money by scrapping the plan. The Pentagon is committed, however, and Panetta said Thursday he had stressed to South Korean leaders the relocation needs to be completed on schedule by 2015.

Panetta wraps up his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region as secretary of defense with a final round of security meetings with South Korean officials on Friday before flying back to the United States.

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_


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