Clinton eyes bringing N. Korea back to negotiating table on nuclear program

In South Korea, which she visited Thursday, fears persist that the US will move forward on ties even if the North resists verifying disablement of its weapons.

Jeon Su-young/AP
Allies: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo in Seoul, South Korea Friday. Clinton told South Korean leaders they had US solidarity against North Korea.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered South Korean leaders firm assurances Friday of American solidarity against North Korea. She stopped short, however, of saying how the United States will respond if North Korea stonewalls on demands for a protocol for verifying disablement of its nuclear weapons program.

Mrs. Clinton preferred, over a lunch with South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak and a separate session with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, to stress the need "to look for ways" to bring North Korea back to six-nation talks on its nuclear program.

As a sign of US eagerness to get North Korea to resume the talks, last held in December, she announced the appointment of Stephen Bosworth, former ambassador to South Korea, as special envoy on North Korea. Mr. Bosworth, who took over as dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy after leaving here in 2000, said after a trip to Pyongyang two weeks ago that he found North Korean officials receptive to returning to the table despite the harsh language of recent statements denouncing President Lee and his policies.

Bosworth's appointment, in the view of some analysts, has the potential to raise the tempo of negotiations. He in effect replaces Christopher Hill, who is leaving his post as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific after accompanying Clinton on a trip that took her first to Japan and Indonesia before coming here. They flew Friday evening to Beijing, the host of the off-again, on-again six-party talks for the past four years.

Bosworth, unlike Mr. Hill, will be able to focus solely on North Korea. Paik Hak-soon, a North Korean expert at the Sejong Institute here, believes that appointment of a special envoy – with a one-issue mission similar to that of Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan, or George Mitchell on Israel and the Palestinian territories – would be "a signal to North Korea" of the new level of seriousness with which the US views the process.

"As the senior representative for North Korean policy," said Clinton, Bosworth's mission will be "to stem the risk of North Korean ambitions."

In looking for how to achieve that goal, she added, the US would be "dealing with the government that's in place right now."

The South Korean government put out a statement saying that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was "in full control," according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. The statement appeared to be an effort to counter any impression that the US and South Korea were doubting the authority of Mr. Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke in August but has been well enough to visit numerous farms, factories, and military units since then, at least as portrayed in still photographs released by North Korea.

Wherever she went on her one day in South Korea, Clinton sought to allay concerns here that US policy would become too soft after having appeared hard-line during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the US by insulting and refusing dialogue," she said, warning that the North needs first to stop the harsh rhetoric against the South, notably President Lee, frequently attacked as a "traitor" and "lackey" of the US.

She agreed with South Korean officials that North Korea was required to suspend all activities related to its nuclear program under a UN Security Council resolution, but was vague about what to do if North Korea made good on signs of plans to launch a satellite from a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, now on site near the northeastern coast.

The US is "willing to normalize bilateral relations," negotiate a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War, and "assist immediately" in providing aid, she told students at Ewha Woman's University here, only "if North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate nuclear weapons."

Fears persist, however, that the US will open bilateral talks with North Korea and then open up diplomatic relations, even as the North balks at verification of disablement of its nuclear weapons.

While "US-DPRK [North Korean] dialogue is important," Foreign Minister Yu said before Clinton arrived, "there are other parties" in the talks, and "to resolve the issue, we have to adhere to principles."

Yu emphasized the need for verification. "If North Korea refuses that, it would mean no negotiations." To which he added, hopefully, "I believe the US will agree to this point."

Verification talks broke down in December after the North refused to agree to let inspectors remove material from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon for scrutiny. North Korea recently has said it will not give up the warheads it's already fabricated even after forming diplomatic relations and has repudiated its 1991 nonaggression treaty with South Korea.

"I don't think Clinton has the capability [to push verification] because of the domestic economic crisis," says Choi Choon-heum, senior research fellow at the Korean Institute of National Unification. "North Korea is trying to negotiate directly with the US. The process will be very slow, and the US may concede to negotiate on normalization of relations without preconditions."

At Ewha University, Clinton received an honorary doctorate and answered questions from 2,000 young women, her largest audience on the trip.

She compared Ewha, a large and prestigious institution, with Wellesley College, of which she is an alumna.

She "could never have imagined myself here as the secretary of State," she said, "but look where I am now." Her advice: "Follow your dreams."

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