By Chris Lawrence
The United States and South Korea still have no clear insight on the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, nearly a year after he replaced his father.
"We still don't know whether or not he will follow in the footsteps of his father, or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted Wednesday.
Panetta made the comment at a news conference on Wednesday after security talks with his South Korean counterpart. The meetings included discussion of North Korea's young leader, who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, after his death in 2011.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said the actual regime "seems to be quite stable," and there is hope Kim Jong Un would "try to introduce new economic reform measures to make a better life for the people" of North Korea.
But the defense minister admitted he was also unsure what path North Korea's leader would take, and he warned that given Kim Jong Un's young age, it could mean bolder actions by the North Korean government. He described Kim as "young, meaning he may be a lot more aggressive compared to old people." Kim is believed to be 29.
Panetta once again called North Korea "defiant and provocative," as he has before, and said he was concerned over its plans to conduct a third nuclear weapons test.
Kim Kwan-jin added that North Korea has been making preparations for this third test "for quite a long time." Although he did not say Pyongyang had decided to proceed, he added "it may in fact resort to this third nuclear test."
Speaking with Kim Kwan-jin by his side, Panetta said, "North Korea remains a threat to both of our nations, and a serious threat to regional and global stability."
He accused the Pyongyang of defying international rules by continuing to enrich uranium. North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 but has not conducted a test this year despite its threats.
A defense official added that the United States also believes North Korea has been making ongoing preparations for another long-range missile test at some point, although he said it does not appear imminent.
Earlier this month, the United States agreed to allow South Korea to extend the range of its ballistic missiles. Previously, South Korea had been limited to a range under 200 miles. Now it will be able to possess missiles that can fly 500 miles.
The expansion allows South Korea to place its missiles much farther away from Pyongyang's artillery, while essentially putting all of North Korea within its range.
Panetta noted that North Korea's actions are "one of the purposes of rebalancing to the Pacific region," referring to the U.S. military's future concentration in Asia. He also announced that the United States and South Korea had signed an agreement for bilateral military space cooperation. He said it establishes a U.S.-South Korea working group to address space policy, training and exchanging personnel.
"Mr. Kim and I agreed on the need to strengthen cooperation with respect to protection of space and cyberspace domains. We must ensure this alliance stays ahead of cyberthreats," Panetta said.
There are almost 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea near the border. This was the fourth time Panetta and Kim have met.