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Diplomatic stance trumps tough talk on North Korea

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, right, shakes hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Kim Jae-hwan
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, right, shakes hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul on Wednesday.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared in full accord with her South Korean hosts during a four-hour stopoff Wednesday in which the language was tough – but diplomacy rather than a military response toward the North was clearly taking top priority.

At a press conference, Mrs. Clinton called on North Korea “to halt its provocations and its policy of threats and belligerence,” as seen in the in the sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean Navy corvette, that resulted in the death of 46 sailors.

But when it came to the bottom-line issue of how to achieve these goals, according to a spokesman for South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, Clinton and Mr. Lee agreed that “strategic patience” was the way to go.

“Time is on our side,” the spokesman was quoted by South Korean media as saying after the meeting. “We shouldn’t go for an impromptu response to each development but take a longer-term perspective.”

The ultimate goal appears to be avoiding another clash that could turn the standoff into a war.

“Things are not going to escalate beyond a certain level,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University. “The objective is to make sure it does not go beyond a certain point.”

That strategy portends a period of rhetoric and recriminations, intermingled with threats from North Korea, while the United States mounts a massive campaign to bring about international condemnation of North Korea and more sanctions by the UN Security Council.

Clinton suggested this strategy by declaring that the “international independent investigation” that found the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo was “objective, the evidence overwhelming, the conclusion inescapable.”

The sinking was “an unacceptable provocation by North Korea,” she said, “and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond.”

A message to China
Clinton, who had just arrived from China, clearly had the Chinese in mind with that remark. She was careful, however, not to chastise Chinese leaders for their slowness to come around to support for the results of the investigation or for their lack of enthusiasm for action by the UN.

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.

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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