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Terrorism & Security

Clinton: North Korea succession a concern

Uncertainty over who will replace Kim Jong Il could complicate negotiations over the country's nuclear program, Clinton said.

By / February 20, 2009

Tough talk: A South Korean demonstrator kicked burning portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally welcoming Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. Secretary Clinton urged North Korea to end its provocative behavior towards the US and South Korea.

Ahn Young-joon/AP


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Thursday that the uncertainty regarding who will succeed North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could have a negative impact on negotiations over North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

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The New York Times reports that Secretary Clinton's comments, made as she continued her tour of Asia, broke an "informal taboo" in the region about addressing Pyongyang's future leadership.

"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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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."

Mr. Kim is believed last fall to have suffered a debilitating ailment, possibly a stroke, although North Korea has denied such reports. Although Mr. Kim is thought to have recovered, The New York Times notes that his health remains a touchy subject even outside of North Korea: China recently jailed an expert on North Korea for addressing Kim's condition in public.

But the Los Angeles Times writes that "Clinton's comments suggested that there is now a widespread conviction that Kim is on the way out, and that the South Koreans, Chinese, Americans and others are formulating plans on how to deal with the successor regime." The Times adds that Clinton revisited her comments Friday in a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, who echoed her concerns.

Clinton clarified her remarks this morning at an appearance with South Korea's foreign minister, saying U.S. officials aren't delaying diplomacy with North Korea until a new government emerges, but are "dealing with the government that exists right now." She disputed suggestions by some foreign policy analysts that she made a rookie mistake by speaking out on the sensitive subject.
"It's not like it's some classified matter that's not being discussed in many circles," she said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan acknowledged that the succession issue is a top priority with Seoul as well.

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