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North Korea May Attack Again in ‘Months,’ U.S. Says

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, seen in a 2008 picture. Source: Korean Central Television/Yonhap via Getty Images

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea may stage another attack “in months and not years,” said Navy Admiral Robert Willard, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appears to be training his son “on a compressed timeline” in “coercive measures” like the attacks last year that killed 46 sailors on the South Korean Cheonan warship and four people on the island of Yeonpyeong, Willard told a forum sponsored by the Asia Society in Washington today.

“We may very well be facing the next provocation in months and not years,” Willard said in remarks that also touched on China and Southeast Asia.

The U.S. is working with South Korea on efforts to “be prepared for a next provocation should it occur,” said Willard, who leads the U.S. Pacific Command.

“These provocations have raised the ire of the South Korean people in a way that we haven’t seen,” Willard said, echoing comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a trip to the region last month. “The South Korean level of tolerance for a next provocation is very low.”

Another attack may prompt more severe retaliation from South Korea than the military exercises and exchange of artillery fire that occurred last year, especially after North Korea walked out of the first talks with South Korea in four months on Feb. 9. North Korea has resisted appeals from the U.S. and partners in the region to end missile tests and its nuclear program.

No ‘Near-Term’ Missile Test

There’s no sign the North Koreans are planning another missile test in the “near term,” Willard said, without being specific.

“The continued development of their ballistic missile capability, combined with the continued development of their nuclear weapons is problematic” for the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the international community, Willard said.

Gates, who said last month that the combination means North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the U.S., has sought to persuade China to put more pressure on its neighboring regime to comply with United Nations resolutions.

The Obama administration has struggled to improve military ties with China even as political and economic cooperation improves.

China’s Stealth Fighter

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned Gates today about China’s development and first flight last month of its new J-20 radar-evading fighter jet. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a House committee last week that it was “not a surprise.”

The test may have occurred six months to a year before intelligence estimates projected, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

Still, China may have 50 of the aircraft deployed by 2020 and “maybe a couple hundred” by 2025, the defense chief said. That compares to 325 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes the U.S. plans to have by the end of 2016, Gates said. The U.S. will have 850 fifth-generation aircraft by 2020, he said.

He also cited the time it takes to develop such a fighter, with China working on its first versus the U.S. experience of 20 years.

“I think they’ve got a long road in front of them before this becomes a serious operational aircraft in any numbers,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to get into classified details in an open hearing.

Talks Proposal

The U.S. hasn’t received a response to a proposal from Gates during his February visit to Beijing for higher-level talks with China on nuclear weapons, space and cyber issues, Willard said.

Willard asked the audience rhetorically to consider what the U.S. should do in the event China declines to participate.

Chinese and U.S. officials resumed lower-level discussions in November after almost nine months of little contact in retaliation for an announcement by the U.S. a year ago that it would sell more arms to Taiwan.

Willard said a large part of his responsibility is to advance the military relationship with China.

“It’s been a challenge to accomplish that,” he said.

U.S. and Chinese forces are coming into contact at “an ever-increasing rate,” he said.

“In the end, if the two militaries are coming into contact with one another at the rate they are, it’s important that my commanders” on the high seas or in the air have enough familiarity to “not misjudge, mis-communicate or ever misunderstand,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at

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