South korea frets over US support
SEOUL - United States' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran through a litany of cliches on US-Korean relations Friday to convince South Korea that it is ensured US support.
The message came through clearly as she professed "fond memories of the time I've spent here as First Lady", during her husband Bill Clinton's presidential forays. She also talked up the "shared values on democracy and human rights", promised "to work together to address a range of issues" and assured the South there is "no issue on which we are more firmly united than denuclearization" of the North.
To hear Clinton as she stood beside South Korea's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, one might have thought that nothing had changed since George W Bush stepped down as president.
Had North Korea succeeded in its fairly heavy-handed efforts to divide the conservative administration of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama's team, which is thought to be liberal and in search of reconciliation and compromise? No, was Clinton's seemingly unequivocal assurance.
"North Korea is not going to get a firm relationship with the United States by using insulting dialogue," she said, complimenting South Korean leaders for their "calm reaction to provocative action" by the North - including its daily tirades against "traitor" President Lee.
She also reassured the South that the US will have a forceful response to the North Korea's planned test-firing of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile. North Korea has claimed the missile will launch a satellite, though it is more likely a demonstration of the North's ability to knock out US bases in Hawaii or Alaska.
It's clear under a UN Security Council resolution that "North Korea is required to suspend all activities related to its nuclear program," said Clinton. "We will be discussing what ways we can best approach North Korea."
If her talk sounded tough, though, the fine print was not quite as clear. For one thing, Clinton also used her visit here to announce the appointment of Stephen Bosworth, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, as US special envoy to North Korea.
On paper, Bosworth, with a background as US ambassador in Seoul and a critical role as ambassador to the Philippines in negotiating the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos as the country's long-ruling president in the 1986 "People Power" revolution, might seem ideal.
As ambassador in Seoul, Bosworth was close to Kim Dae-jung, the former president who initiated the "Sunshine policy" of reconciliation with North Korea a decade ago, and he had lavish praise for Kim at a luncheon that he hosted for him at the Fletcher School last April. Bosworth has been sharply critical of Kim's foes both South Korea and in Washington.
South Korean conservatives blame Kim Dae-jung for compromising with North Korea and providing it with large sums of financial aid, not to mention the secret payments of hundreds of millions of dollars to bring about his June 2000 summit in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il. South Korea's current leaders believe the South got very little in return and are suspicious of American diplomats they see as fans of Kim Dae-jung.
Bosworth, Koreans remember, was ambassador here during Bill Clinton's last three years as president when his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, cozied up to Kim Jong-il in a visit in October 2000 - and stood beside him at a giant extravaganza in May Day stadium highlighted by the joyous portrayal of a Taepodong missile launch on August 31, 1998.
Did Bosworth promote the idea of bilateral talks when he visited Pyongyang two weeks ago? He emerged from that trip saying he believed North Korea wanted "six-party talks" but did not exactly rule out bilateral dialogue, possibly on the sidelines of six-party talks, the form favored by the former US negotiator, Christopher Hill.
Clinton did not seem to rule out that possibility either as she remarked, "We will be discussing what ways we can best approach North Korea." However, she assured the South Koreans, "The most immediate issue is to continue disablement and dismantlement of the nuclear facilities and get a verifiable nuclear program". How to bring about those longstanding goals remained unanswered.
Nor was she totally reassuring as she talked of the need for "dealing with the government that exists right now" in North Korea, of looking "for ways to engage that government", to "bring them back through the six-party process". The last session of the six-party talks, which include China, Russia, Japan, the US and both Koreas, took place in December, 2008.
One reason for Clinton's ambivalent remarks was to pull back from her controversial observation made on the plane here from Indonesia that talk of succession of power from Kim Jong-il "creates uncertainty". South Korean officials, fearful of another torrent of North Korean rhetoric on such a slur against the Dear Leader, put out a statement saying he was "in full control" despite reports he suffered a stroke last August, according to local media.
While in Seoul, Clinton found South Korean leaders deeply concerned about the North's looming missile test - and a possible surprise attack by sea or land for a quick test of the US-Korean alliance. Her mission on the North's nuclear ambitions comes amid threats from Pyongyang of "all-out confrontation" and the South's fear of "provocation" in the Yellow Sea, the scene of naval battles in June 1999 and June 2002.
Her proposal, as she took off from Washington for Tokyo, first stop on her first overseas trip as secretary, was to open diplomatic relations with North Korea, negotiate a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War and provide a vast infusion of economic aid.
All that, however, "very clearly is conditioned" on North Korea's willingness to show what it's doing about its nukes "in a verifiable way", said another former US ambassador, Thomas Hubbard, who is in Seoul for seminars on North Korea.
Hubbard seemed confident those conditions remain as they "always have been", despite South Korean concerns about what many in Seoul see as Obama's eagerness for compromise. Hubbard stressed continuity in US policy, while criticizing the Bush administration for having adopted an unrealistic hardline for its first five or six years.
From the presidency of Bill Clinton to that of Bush, Hubbard observed "one of the most dramatic breaks I've seen in 40 years as a diplomat - with disastrous results".
The worst example of this, he said, was the complete breakdown in 2002 of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, which he had a major role in negotiating. Under the agreement, North Korea froze the nuclear program at its Yongbyon complex in return for the promise of twin light-water nuclear reactors and shipment by the US of heavy fuel oil until they went on line.
Hubbard predicted that American diplomats, led by Hillary Clinton, will try to repair the damage. "I don't see a John Bolton in his crowd," he said, referring to the outspoken former US undersecretary of state and UN ambassador who led the hard-liners in urging a tough policy toward North Korea.
At the same time, he added, "There need be no concern" that the new people on the case in Washington "will tolerate North Korea as a nuclear state."
Clinton was here for fewer than 24 hours before going on to Beijing, the host of the off-and-on six-party talks, to wrap up her first overseas trip as secretary of state. She began a crowded day in South Korea with a visit to the sprawling main US military base in central Seoul before broaching her ideas on for a "comprehensive" approach on North Korea with the foreign minister.
Yu had hinted at the South's worries about future US policy before she arrived, saying he hoped the visit would "strengthen the Korea-US alliance" but adding, "It is important to adhere to principles". Specifically, he warned against the type of bilateral talks between the US and North Korea that South Koreans see as a means of excluding the South from the dialogue.
While US dialogue with the North is "important," said Yu, "there are other parties" to consider and "verification is an indispensable element" - points that no one doubts the US will honor - until it decides not to.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.