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Diplomatic stance trumps tough talk on North Korea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a brief visit to South Korea, agreed with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that 'strategic patience' should guide relations in wake of North Korean sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in March.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / May 26, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, right, that 'strategic patience' should guide relations in wake of North Korean sinking of the South Korean Cheonan ship, during their meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea Wednesday.

Saul Loeb/AP


Seoul, South Korea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared in full accord with her South Korean hosts during a four-hour stopoff Wednesday in which the language was tough – but diplomacy rather than a military response toward the North was clearly taking top priority.

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At a press conference, Mrs. Clinton called on North Korea “to halt its provocations and its policy of threats and belligerence,” as seen in the in the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean Navy corvette, that resulted in the death of 46 sailors.

But when it came to the bottom-line issue of how to achieve these goals, according to a spokesman for South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, Clinton and Mr. Lee agreed that “strategic patience” was the way to go.

“Time is on our side,” the spokesman was quoted by South Korean media as saying after the meeting. “We shouldn’t go for an impromptu response to each development but take a longer-term perspective.”

The ultimate goal appears to be avoiding another clash that could turn the standoff into a war.

“Things are not going to escalate beyond a certain level,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University. “The objective is to make sure it does not go beyond a certain point.”

That strategy portends a period of rhetoric and recriminations, intermingled with threats from North Korea, while the United States mounts a massive campaign to bring about international condemnation of North Korea and more sanctions by the UN Security Council.

Clinton suggested this strategy by declaring that the “international independent investigation” that found the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo was “objective, the evidence overwhelming, the conclusion inescapable.”

The sinking was “an unacceptable provocation by North Korea,” she said, “and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond.”

A message to China

Clinton, who had just arrived from China, clearly had the Chinese in mind with that remark. She was careful, however, not to chastise Chinese leaders for their slowness to come around to support for the results of the investigation or for their lack of enthusiasm for action by the UN.