SEOUL — When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton landed here Saturday night, she had a whole list of issues she wanted to talk over with South Korean officials, including a pending free-trade agreement and disaster relief for their mutual ally Japan.
But she made no direct mention in her public remarks of one key goal that, according to U.S. officials, she hoped to address: the ever-present, vexing problem of Seoul’s neighbor to the north.
The past two years — ever since President Obama’s inauguration — have been especially challenging for U.S. diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. In that short time, North Korea has torpedoed a South Korean ship unprovoked, bombarded civilians in the South and detonated a nuclear weapon in a test. All the while, the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea’s government have remained stalled.
In her opening speech to South Korea’s foreign minister, Clinton mentioned none of this, touching on North Korea only obliquely with a mention of “non-proliferation.” But U.S. officials say one major reason for her visit was to shore up the U.S. relationship with Seoul and to make sure they’re on the same page on North Korea.
“We want to make sure there’s absolutely no space between the South and the United States,” said a senior U.S. administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We know in the past that the North has attempted to use gaps or space or misunderstandings between allies to further its foreign policy goals, and we are determined not to let that happen.”
North Korea has signaled of late that it is open to restarting discussions with the international community, and it has engaged in meetings with the South. But after years of watching Pyongyang’s cycle of provocation, rapprochement and minor concessions in exchange for food and aid, many including U.S. diplomats say they are wary of reengaging in talks without making sure it is something South Korea — one of America’s strongest allies in Asia — wants.
Some critics have hailed the current U.S. position as a non-plan because it has consisted of and resulted in almost no action. Others have called it “strategic patience.”
“Though it has a different moniker, every administration in the past 30 years has more or less tried the same thing,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t blame them for trying either, but I would not bet on this to work.”
The problem is — and has been for years — that the United States stands to lose whether it engages or not. Engaging with North Koreans means the risk of being played for a sucker yet again if Pyongyang’s interest in resuming talks isn’t genuine. But maintaining a tough and unyielding stance could lead Pyongyang to provoke again — with a missile test, nuclear test or additional unprovoked strikes on the South.
Several recent events, however, could sway that decision in either direction. Over the past year, North Korean officials have appeared to be preparing Kim Jong Il to be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Eun, a young untested leader in a already unpredictable and often paranoid country.
Aid groups have also reported a desperate need for food assistance in the impoverished country, where famine has in the past killed hundreds of thousands. Negotiations on food aid, which the Obama administration has not yet decided upon, could be an opening to resume discussions.
But more immediate talks could also be driven by the news in recent days that a U.S. citizen has been arrested in North Korea allegedly for engaging in illegal religious activities. U.S. officials say they have begun working on getting the American man released by talking with other allies such as Britain and Sweden, which unlike the United States have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
And coming later this month is yet another x-factor when former president Jimmy Carter, an advocate for resuming discussion with North Korea, plans to visit the country.
But for now at least, it appears that the United States is sticking to its hard line, unwilling to hold talks until North Korea follows up on its earlier promises from previous six-party talks to disarm in return for aid.
“We’re not interested in returning to what we might call ‘business as usual,’ where in exchange for certain aspects of support, North Korea takes some small steps which could then be subsequently reversed,” a senior U.S. official said. “What we’re looking for is a fundamental change in the way North Korea acts with its neighbors.”