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Perspectives

February 19, 2009
No. Korea spews blustery rhetoric as Clinton arrives in So.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs Andrews Air Force Base for her first official trip to Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in South Korea on Thursday as part of her Asia tour. Also on Thursday, North Korea announced that it is ready for war with South Korea.

There are additional reports that North Korea may be ready to test a long-range missile.

Scott Snyder is the director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and an adjunct senior fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at the “In Asia” blog about Clinton’s agenda and South Korea’s options going forward.

Awaiting the New Secretary of State in South Korea

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Seoul today on her first visit to South Korea in her new post. South Koreans have anticipated her arrival—and the establishment of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Korean peninsula—with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. This mood has been fed by a rapid deterioration in inter-Korean relations, increasingly strident North Korean military threats toward the South, and preparations to launch a long-range missile. The agenda for the visit is broad—suggesting that the U.S.-ROK alliance is now positioned to make contributions beyond the peninsula—but the core preoccupation will remain how to deal with North Korea.

[…]But there are still nagging worries in Seoul that the Korean issue will get lost in the shuffle of other pressing issues facing the Obama administration.

Although North Korea’s traditional blustery rhetoric and crisis escalation measures are familiar, they highlight the complexity of the North Korean challenge: North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, but analysts increasingly suggest that North Korea will not give them up under any circumstances, implying no choice but acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status. Moreover, North Korea’s internal political situation is fragile, with a defensive and weakening political elite that may find itself less able to steer a consistent path, but unlikely to lose power completely.

Further, North Korea’s policy of engaging the United States while marginalizing South Korea seems designed to ensure the perpetuation of tension on the Korean peninsula. This situation requires extraordinarily close cooperation between Washington and Seoul. Secretary Clinton’s visit establishes the relationships among leaders necessary to address this challenge.

Secretary Clinton has stated that her main objective during her first visit to Asia is to “listen.” This means that what South Korean leaders say and do (whether such actions can win support from the Korean public) will shape the near-term potential of the relationship. This is especially the case with regard to South Korea’s potential contributions to international piracy off the Somalian cost and post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan.

Instead of responding to American requests for assistance in global ‘hot spots,’ South Korea should establish its contributions to the international community based on its own perceived interests, knowing that international perceptions of Korea’s prestige and influence as a global leader will depend on Korea’s capacity and willingness to undertake commensurate responsibilities.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State under a Creative Commons license.

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