Clinton addresses North Korea succession

Posted in United States , Koreas | 20-Feb-09 | Author: Mark Landler| Source: International Herald Tribune

South Koreans during a rally welcoming U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009.

SEOUL, South Korea: When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Thursday that a succession battle in North Korea could complicate nuclear negotiations with that country's government, she broke an informal taboo. Diplomats do not talk publicly about what comes after Kim Jong-il, the convalescing dictator who turned his isolated country into a nuclear rogue state.

Clinton, on her first trip as secretary of state, broached the topic with reporters on her plane, and then answered two questions.

"If there is a succession, even if it's a peaceful succession," she said, "that creates more uncertainty, and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative, as a way to consolidate power within the society."

The question is whether Clinton made a beginner's error that could upset other players in the negotiations, like China. Or whether she showed refreshing candor ? the kind of approach that could shake loose what has been a diplomatic quagmire for the last eight years.

The answer was not yet clear in the hours after Clinton landed in Seoul to hold meetings with leaders there about North Korea; neither China nor North Korea itself issued any official reaction to her comments. But already some experts are fretting.

"If you're looking for ways to change the dynamic, there are other ways to do it," said Steve Clemons, director of the American strategy program at the New America Foundation. "Asia is all about face. What she's done is to create a huge face problem for the North Korean government."

But a senior State Department official said Clinton was merely stating the obvious: Kim, who suffered a stroke last August, has not returned to his old form, and his country is behaving in a way that bears the hallmarks of a country in the throes of a power struggle.

North Korea has threatened to test a long-range ballistic missile theoretically capable of reaching Alaska. Kim, 67, recently dismissed his defense minister, one of his closest advisers. And there are conflicting reports over whether he anointed his youngest son as his successor.

The jockeying for power in North Korea raises the pressure on the United States, South Korea, China and other countries to revive negotiations, Clinton said. That may not be a message China wants to hear. It arrested a leading expert on North Korea, Jin Xide of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, just for speaking publicly about the health of Kim.

Clinton did not speculate about how succession might play out in one of the world's most secretive countries, saying she first wanted to consult with officials in South Korea and China. "There is a lot of guessing going on," she said. "We're going to have to try to feel our way forward."

The succession has long been an obsession of North Korea hands ? whether Kim, who succeeded his father, would indeed be able to install his son, or whether other factions, even the military, would prevail; how long a struggle would play out; and how dangerous a vacuum could develop in the meantime.

North Korea's bellicose behavior has cast a shadow over Clinton's trip, and promises to dominate her agenda when she meets Friday with South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak.

It will also figure high when she flies to Beijing for a meeting with President Hu Jintao.

At a news conference on Friday with the South Korean foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, Clinton expressed no qualms about raising the succession issue, saying that North Korea did not have a vice president or a prime minister. At the same time, she said, "It is clear we are dealing with the government that exists right now."

Clinton also announced that Stephen Bosworth would be the next special representative for North Korea policy, replacing Christopher Hill, who is expected to become ambassador to Iraq.

Bosworth, a former ambassador to South Korea, is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Speaking on Thursday, Clinton said, "Our goal is, try to come up with a strategy that is effective in influencing the behavior of the North Koreans, at a time when the whole leadership situation is somewhat unclear."

American officials can only make a stab at judging Kim's condition. In his annual threat assessment, submitted to Congress last week, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, said that while Kim's stroke had hindered his ability to operate as actively as he had before, his health had improved significantly and he appeared to be making important decisions.

North Korea celebrated Kim's 67th birthday on Monday, with a synchronized swimming display and other events. There were no reports that the man known as the Dear Leader appeared at any of the festivities.

Last month, South Korean news media reported that Kim had picked his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Kim's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, later told reporters in Beijing than his father alone would decide who would succeed him, according to Reuters.

A South Korean newspaper reported this week that North Korea had built an underground facility to enrich uranium near Yongbyon, where its plutonium facilities are located ? fanning suspicions that it was running a clandestine program to produce fuel for bombs.

Clinton, as she did earlier this week, played down concerns about North Korea's having a covert, highly enriched uranium program and said too much focus on it could distract from the need to confront North Korea over its publicly declared nuclear activities.

"I worry that, you know, they're straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel," Clinton said, citing a biblical verse that refers to those who obsess over small problems while neglecting big ones.

On Friday, she is scheduled to meet with the commander of American forces in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, to assess the threatened missile launch. North Korea's only other test of a long-range missile, in 2006, ended in failure seconds after the rocket left the launching pad.

Clinton said she would explore whether the missile program should be included in the six-party negotiations with North Korea, which includes the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Clinton said she was interested in exploring whether neighbors like China could exert more influence on North Korea. "North Korea is on China's border, and I want to understand better what the Chinese believe is doable," she said.