SEOUL // Although Hillary Clinton's agenda for her tour of Asia includes numerous topics, such as the global financial crisis, humanitarian issues, regional security and climate change, she will probably spend most of her time talking about North Korea. This was seen in the new secretary of state's visit to Japan on Tuesday where she characterised the North Korean nuclear issue "a matter of great concern" after talks with the Japanese foreign minister. "We discussed it at great length," she told reporters.
Mrs Clinton's first trip abroad in her new capacity includes stops in Japan, South Korea and China - three countries that are parties to the ongoing multinational negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear ambition. Her trip also included a visit to Indonesia yesterday. "Whatever she said will be interpreted and reinterpreted and dissected by all parties concerned, the Japanese, South Koreans, Chinese and certainly North Koreans," said Han S Park, the director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said on several occasions he would be willing to meet North Korea's leader, without precondition, in a bid to resolve the nuclear impasse. With that, there has been some expectation the Obama administration will take a more proactive stance than the Bush administration. However, in Japan, Mrs Clinton talked tough on Pyongyang's nuclear development and strongly warned it over a suspected missile launch.
"The possible missile launch that North Korea is talking about would be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward," she said, adding, "we are watching very closely." In an earlier speech in New York last week, she also said the improvement of bilateral relations would be conditional upon the North's renouncement of nuclear weapons. Her speech in Japan, which has traditionally taken tough posture on North Korea, was assuring enough that her Japanese counterpart, Hirofumi Nakasone, confidently told reporters that the US policy on the North would not change "in any serious way".
"She sounded like the Bush administration's secretary of state," Mr Park said, adding in this widely watched first major foreign policy tour, it would have been desirable for Mrs Clinton to say something different from the previous administration. "The attitude of 'unless you do first, nothing will be forthcoming from us' was what George Bush said. If Clinton implies that, or if what she says during this trip is interpreted that way, that will be a disaster," giving a wrong signal to North Korea, said Mr Park. There are questions about whether Mrs Clinton's hard words on North Korea reflect the "will" of Mr Obama. As a Democratic presidential rival, Mrs Clinton had maintained a tougher posture on North Korea. When Mr Obama approached her for the secretary of state position, it was reported that she demanded a greater "autonomy" as a precondition to accept the proposal. Regarding Mrs Clinton's tough posture on Pyongyang, Mr Park said: "I don't think that's something Obama will agree with. The key to the 'Obama doctrine' is to engage with other countries with dialogue unconditionally, including North Korea. What Clinton said is inconsistent with what I consider the Obama doctrine. This will be viewed by Pyongyang as a perpetuation of Bush's domineering behaviour." "I am not sure to what extent Obama's personal ideas are reflected in her speeches and statements as well as discussions with her counterparts in the region." On North Korea's part, Mrs Clinton's statements are destined for a collision course. In a closed-door bilateral meeting in New York in November, North Koreans clarified to the US that it would scrap its nuclear programme only after normalisation with the US materialises first. Some observers say the seemingly "conflicting" signals from Mrs Clinton reflects the fact that the Obama administration is still in the process of finalising its policy on North Korea, which will be completed in March. "I think Obama has not made his mind yet," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. In a telling sign, there has been an upsurge of visits to North Korea by former US diplomats and experts on North Korea who are said to have been involved in the brainstorming of the Obama government's foreign policy on the Stalinist country. They include Mr Han; Stephen Bosworth, former US ambassador to South Korea; Selig Harrison, Center for International Policy Asia Program director; and Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state. All of them denied that their visit to Pyongyang was to play the role of a "messenger" for the Obama administration. Meanwhile, North Korea must be closely watching Mrs Clinton's every move. But when it comes to the missile (or a satellite as it later claimed), it will ignore Mrs Clinton's warning and go ahead and launch it anyway, according to Dong Young-seung, head of the North Korea research team at Samsung Economic Research Institute. "Why? It's because it is in line with its interest," he said in his office in downtown Seoul. Just like the nuclear experiment, the missile launch will give North Korea heightened negotiation leverage in its dealings with the US, he said. Speculation is high in Seoul that the communist regime may test-fire a ballistic missile this week when Mrs Clinton visits South Korea in a bid to further ratchet up tensions on the peninsula and draw attention from Washington. On Tuesday, Lee Myung-bak, South Korea's president, called for "all-out defence posture". South Korea also termed North Korea a "direct, serious threat" in a defence paper. Mr Dong, however, dismisses the view. He anticipates that the missile launch will be timed at late March or April when the US completes its foreign policy reviews on North Korea. firstname.lastname@example.org