On Burma (Myanmar) visit, Hillary Clinton highlights North Korea determination

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Burma (Myanmar) to laud democratic reforms there, Burma’s ally, North Korea, proudly claims rapid progress on its nuclear program.

Saul Loeb/Reuters
Local police salute as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's motorcade passes upon her arrival in Naypyidaw, Burma (Myanmar) on Wednesday.
Vincent Thian/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waves as she arrives at the airport in Naypyitaw, Burma (Myanmar) on Wednesday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called today for North Korea to "promote peace, stability, and denuclearization," as the North boasted of “leaping progress" in building a light-water nuclear reactor along with low-enriched uranium.

Secretary Clinton issued the call in the port city of Pusan on the way to Burma (Myanmar) on a mission to encourage reform of a government that is strongly suspected of planning to build a reactor with North Korean assistance.

The juxtaposition of Ms. Clinton’s plea for North Korea to give up its nukes and Pyongyang's proud claim of rapid progress on the light-water reactor dramatizes American differences with North Korea. 

The North, which has conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, is widely believed to be preparing for a third test.

After issuing a defense of its escalating nuclear program, North Korea renewed its threat to turn the office and residence of South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak into “a sea of fire.”  The use of that phrase was “not empty talk,” according to Radio Pyongyang, but a warning to “refrain from rash acts” – including possibly a South Korean attack on the North.

The posturing from North Korea is seen by some observers as a response to rebuffs from South Korea and the US to resume sending aid to the North as they did before the conservative President Lee began a five-year term in February 2008.

“There is frustration in North Korea,” says Kim Tae-woo, a long-time military analyst who is now president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “They failed to get food from South Korea. Therefore they have a bellicose attitude.”

Another view is that North Korea is stepping up the rhetoric in hopes of bringing about a renewal of six-party talks “without preconditions” on its nuclear program. The US has supported South Korea’s view that North Korea must begin to make good on its earlier commitments.

President Lee has issued frequent demands for apologies for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea last November and the sinking in 2010 of a South Korean naval ship the Cheonan in which 50 people died. Mr. Lee has also been adamant that North Korea must show firm signs of giving up its nuclear program before talks can begin.

“I don’t think preconditions are helpful at all,” says Hans Blix, who served as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the 1990s when North Korea shut down its five-megawatt plutonium reactor in accordance with the Geneva framework agreement reached in October 1994. That agreement fell apart after North Korea was revealed to have embarked on its own program for building a reactor and facility for enriching uranium.

Mr. Blix opposes demands for North Korea to apologize for past offenses. “We’ve heard demands for apologies,” he says. “It’s not a way to get the discussion going again.”

Amid this climate, Clinton, attending a conference on international aid in Pusan, flew to the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw to bring about rapprochement with a government that’s been at odds with the US and close to North Korea. She’s holding out the bait of removal of sanctions while calling for democratic reforms on the basis of what President Obama has called “a flicker of hope,” seen in the release of some political prisoners and the freedom given Burma’s hero of reform, Aung San Suu Kyi, for years under house arrest. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated the capital of Burma]

Her trip, if nothing else, is likely to discourage budding ties between Burma and North Korea revolving around the export of North Korea nuclear and missile technology.

“Burma has not come very far,” says Blix. “They don’t have that much nuclear equipment.” Nonetheless, he says, “the world has reason to inquire” about Burma’s program.

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