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.
"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.
During the meeting, Clinton also warned North Korea to cease its confrontational conduct, reports The Korean Times.
"North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with the Republic of Korea," she said. "We are calling on the government of North Korea to refrain from being provocative and unhelpful in the war of words that it has been engaged in because that is not very fruitful."
Experts here said her tougher remarks against North Korea than those made during a speech to the Asia Society before her regional trip [were] aimed at relieving lingering worries here that South Korea might be isolated if North Korea resorts to bilateral talks with the United States....
On Thursday, North Korea said it was "ready for war with the South." The statement came following the announcement by the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command on joint military exercises next month and hours ahead of Clinton's visit to Seoul.
Pyongyang has been engaged in a series of provocative acts recently, including preparations for a long-range missile test. The Financial Times reports that North Korea's official KCNA news agency also accused the US of "preparation for war" and of planning "a pre-emptive nuclear strike" against the North. Experts believe that Pyongyang's actions are an attempt to seek attention from the Obama administration.
Clinton's comments about North Korea come as Pyongyang continues to reshuffle its leadership in the wake of Kim's apparent stroke last fall. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that Kim has promoted Gen. O Kuk-Ryol to chair the commission that controls North Korea's 1.1 million-man army.
O ... is one of Kim's confidants and a "renowned hawk" who has advocated a hardline stance against South Korea, Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
"His promotion is seen as another strong message towards South Korea," he said. "It is also aimed at enhancing stability in the military by appointing Kim's trusted old guard to a key post."
The North has scrapped all peace accords and threatened war with the South in protest at its conservative government, which has rolled back a policy of engagement with Pyongyang and near-unconditional aid.
AFP notes that Mr. O's son is allegedly close to Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un. The Mainichi Daily News reports that Mr. Kim Jong Un was named as Kim Jong Il's successor in a memo currently circulating in the North's military establishment. A similar report appeared last month in South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the Associated Press reported. Kim reportedly does not favor his other sons, Jong Nam and Jong Chol, as possible leaders of North Korea.