STUTTGART, Germany – Although they have generated tension in the United States, North Korea's recent activities are part of a cycle, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
"There's been a pattern throughout the last 25 or 30 years of provocation to accommodation to provocation back to accommodation," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters who traveled here with him for today's U.S. Africa Command change of command.
The chairman said he hasn't seen anything yet to suggest that this time is different, "but we're all concerned that it could be something different because of the presence of a new and much younger leader and our inability to understand who influences him."
North Korea has long been a bit opaque, the general said.
"But in the past, we've understood their leadership and the influencers a little better than we do today," he said.
Though the United States has little information about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he is carrying out a pattern similar to the one his predecessors followed, Dempsey noted. What is new, he said, is the bellicosity from North Korea's leadership, especially in response to the annual Foal Eagle field training exercise involving U.S. and South Korean forces.
"There's been some speculation that our activities have been provocative," Dempsey said, "but our activities have been largely defensive and exclusively intended to reassure our allies." North Korea's rhetoric, on the other hand, has been reckless, he added.
"We've been deliberate and measured, and the rhetoric, ... that's been pretty reckless," the chairman said, particularly given North Korea's ballistic missile capability.
"And we believe they have nuclear capability," Dempsey added. "We don't know whether they've been able to weaponize it, but the combination of that makes it a very reckless statement."
The United States is trying to be deliberate and measured and to assure its allies that, despite spending cuts, "we'll live up to our alliance obligations and protect our national interest," Dempsey said.
"That's not being bellicose," he added. "That's being very matter-of-fact."
Dempsey will travel to China later this month, and he recently spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui.
"We both agreed in that telephone conversation that we did need to speak about North Korea," the chairman said.
A number of challenges surround North Korea, Dempsey told reporters. He noted that the upcoming trip provides an opening to learn face-to-face the implications for China and to explain the implications for the United States and its allies.
"Looking at these issues in isolation is a guarantee that we'll fail to understand them. What I'm not going to do is go over there and deliver the traditional talking point about, 'Can't you get your southern neighbor under control?'" the chairman said.
"I know the answer to that question," he continued. "I would rather take the opportunity to gain a little deeper understanding of ... their issues. ... I think that's kind of the basis of understanding."