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.
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Rather, Clinton said she believed “the Chinese understand the seriousness of this issue and are willing to listen to the concerns expressed by both South Korea and the United States." In other words, say analysts here, the US and South Korea remain hopeful that China will come around to agreeing on a declaration that holds North Korea responsible – and convinces the North not to go beyond rhetoric.
“The Chinese realize if they sit on the fence for too long it’s going to be very bad for them,” says Professor Lee at Yonsei. “The Chinese must show on certain issues they’ve got to go along with the international community.”
Economic considerations also weigh into the equation. Korean leaders believe that more incidents – and the danger of a second Korean war – could wreak havoc far beyond the Korean peninsula.
“There is a financial issue,” Lee notes. “You have the Greek crisis and turmoil in Thailand,” both of which factor into uneasiness on global stock markets and currency valuations.
“You send a strong signal to Pyongyang: Do not rock the boat beyond a certain point,” says Lee.
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What if there's another attack?
But the question remains, what if the North Koreans do stage another attack in disputed waters in the Yellow, or West, Sea, the scene of the Cheonan sinking? Or what if they make good on threats to fire on mega-loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War?
“If the North Koreans do something really stupid,” says Lee, “South Korea will respond.”
But he thinks North Korean leader Kim Jong-il “got some really bad advice from his generals” who urged sinking a South Korean warship in response for the destruction of a North Korean patrol boat last November.
One result, Lee notes, is that the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, after appearing critical of US bases in Japan, particularly on Okinawa, now has changed its tune. “They’ve come back to the alliance,” he says. The US, Japan, and South Korea “are all reading from the same sheet of music, where they didn’t before.”
Clinton and Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan agreed that a strong international stand on the Cheonan issue is vital to resolving the much greater problem of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
“The Cheonan incident will serve as an occasion to solve the nuclear issue as well,” said Yu. “Through this issue it’s very important for North Korea to denuclearize.”
Yu acknowledged, though, that no one really knows how far North Korea has gone as a nuclear power despite two underground nuclear tests and the possibility of a third before the end of this year. “It’s a little difficult to verify the capabilities of North Korea,” he said.
Clinton was equally vague, calling for North Korea stop acting “belligerent” and “fulfill its nuclear obligations” – a reference to two agreements reached in 2007 in which the North agreed to give up its nuclear program. North Korea has not participated in six-party talks on its nuclear program since December 2008.
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