SEOUL, February 19 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives on Thursday in South Korea to grapple with the issue that has overshadowed her Asian tour — how to handle a nuclear-armed and missile-capable North Korea.,
Clinton, the first top US diplomat for decades to make Asia her inaugural destination, has also identified climate change and the global economic crisis as key topics of her four-nation tour.
But she terms North Korea’s nuclear programme "the most acute challenge to stability in northeast Asia". And Pyongyang upped the ante this week by signalling it will go ahead with a long-range missile test.
South Korea, whose military is on alert for any border provocation, says North Korea will top the agenda of Clinton’s talks Friday, although it will also seek assurances that a planned free trade pact can still make progress.
The North has taken an increasingly belligerent posture towards Seoul’s conservative government, which has reversed its predecessors’ policy of largely unconditional aid and engagement.
Pyongyang has also staked out a tough stance in currently stalled nuclear disarmament talks involving the US, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan.
Clinton has backed the six-party process and stressed the diplomatic and economic rewards that full denuclearisation would bring but has also raised the prospect of greater bilateral contacts with the North.
A senior State Department official told AFP on condition of anonymity that although the South Koreans are concerned about the sabre-rattling by the North, the focus of Clinton’s visit will be on how to revive the six-party talks.
"She’s going to be talking to the (South) Koreans, she wants to hear their views on how we can better put pressure on the North. But military issues, that’s not the focus of this (visit)," he said.
"She’s going to be talking about the six-party framework, reaffirming our commitment to it and looking for ideas and ways from the Koreans as well as the Chinese for how we can get the North back on track."
Analyst Peter Beck last week underlined the importance of bilateral talks at a meeting of a US House foreign affairs subcommittee but also said the six-party talks and revived co-ordination between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo would be crucial.
Analysts see the North’s preparations for a missile test as an attempt to take the upper hand over Washington in the disarmament negotiations.
They believe its long-term aim is to win US acceptance as a nuclear state — retaining a few nuclear weapons in return for a shutdown of plutonium production and non-proliferation guarantees.
Clinton should reassure Asian allies that Washington is committed to complete denuclearisation and will not accept the North as a nuclear weapons state, analyst Bruce Klingner of the US Heritage Foundation has said.
The secretary of state has said the US is "absolutely committed" to full denuclearisation. And any missile launch "would be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward," she said Tuesday in Japan.
Seoul’s Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan will meet her Friday for talks on getting the six-party negotiations back on track and other issues.
Yu said Wednesday the North’s combined "long-range missile and nuclear capability will have a very serious impact on the world’s peace and security."
Yu said the North is expected to depict any launch as an attempt to put a civilian satellite into orbit but it would still breach UN resolutions.
The United States is South Korea’s oldest ally and stations 28,500 troops here to deter any North Korean attack. Seoul is seeking a "21st Century Strategic Alliance", strengthening cooperation not only in security but also in social, cultural and economic fields.
South Korea will push the United States for early Congressional ratification of a sweeping free trade agreement. While on the campaign trial, Barack Obama called the pact "badly flawed".
Clinton during her confirmation hearing urged Seoul to renegotiate provisions on the auto trade and beef shipments. In public at least, South Korean officials have refused to consider any renegotiation.
Apart from her talks with Yu, Clinton will hold talks with Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo and have a lunch meeting with President Lee Myung-Bak.
She is also scheduled to visit the joint South Korea-US military command and hold a "town hall" meeting at Ewha women’s university before departing for Beijing.