U.S. won't push South Korea on North

North Korea state media releases first official photo of Kim Jong-il's likely successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 8:40 AM

TOKYO - As hereditary heir Kim Jong Eun assumes a public role in Pyongyang, appearing for photo sessions and watching live fire drills, the Obama administration has clarified at least one thing about its North Korea policy: Everything depends on South Korea.

Different from earlier years, when Washington sometimes twisted the arm of its ally, U.S. officials now say that they'll only go where Seoul wants to go.

Six-party talks should only resume, officials say, when South Korea is ready for them. As a prerequisite for engagement, Washington wants to see improved relations between the South and the North. In a testament to its healthiest alliance in Asia, Washington is willing to be led.

"We've tried to have a very consistent policy about what our objectives are on the Korean peninsula," said Kurt Campbell, the U.S. State Department's assistant secretary for East Asian affairs, who is visiting the region this week. "First and foremost, quite frankly, is to have the closest possible partnership with South Korea and work with them. . . . What we've seen, in many respects, is a renaissance in U.S.-South Korean relations."

Washington's coordinated efforts with Seoul reflect the high opinion that Obama has for South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, whom Campbell called "extraordinarily able." Since the March sinking of South Korea's Cheonan warship, the countries have drawn closer, holding high-level diplomatic meetings and military drills.

The Obama administration's wait-and-follow policy with North Korea also underscores a lack of attractive options for engagement. Six-party talks, the process to persuade Pyongyang's disarmament, has so far led only to broken promises and skepticism about their usefulness.

In advance of a meeting Thursday in Seoul, Campbell arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday to launch a two-day East Asia trip heavy on Pyongyang strategy.

Campbell called it premature to "make any judgments yet" about the succession of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il by his youngest son. Official say the United States still isn't sure what to make of the young, fleshy-faced general who emerged last week as North Korea's next leader.

But experts in both Seoul and Washington do not expect that Kim Jong Eun's ascension will alter North Korea's policy or its behavior. Though some academics and North Korea analysts speculate that the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Eun could emerge as a reformer, that notion carries little credence with U.S. officials.

In the past week, North Korea has operated as usual - which is to say, it has confused pretty much everybody.

It reached an agreement Friday with South Korea to facilitate reunions for families separated by the Korean War. But it also prompted alarm, as satellite imagery showed construction or excavation activity at its Yongbyon nuclear site.

North Korea might be restoring its nuclear facilities, officials in Seoul said. It might also be choreographing a fake-out.

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