U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said North Korea's attack on a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is part of its succession strategy as leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, seeks support from the military, Yonhap news agency said Saturday.
Gates, however, was ambiguous about the intelligence, attributing it to conjecture.
"One of the main worries I have about North Korea is that they appear to be starting a succession process, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Kim Jong-il's son, who wants to take over, has to earn his stripes with the North Korean miliry," he said at the Marines' Memorial Theater in San Fransisco Thursday, it said.
The Obama administration’s top defense official said, "My worry is that that's behind a provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan. So I think we're very concerned that this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans."
After an international inquiry determined that North Korea was responsible for the sinking, South Korea brought the matter to the U.N. Security Council, seeking punitive measures.
China, the North’s long-time enabler, however, watered down the South’s initiative.
Gates said that China is reluctant to sanction North Korea due to concerns over a regime collapse, which might force millions of refugees to flood into China.
"What worries the Chinese ... is the prospect of instability in North Korea, of the collapse of the regime, which would send millions of North Korean refugees across their border," he said. "I think that's one of the reasons why they are unwilling to put much pressure on that regime, because maybe they believe it's very frail."