- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

SEOUL — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to South Korea Thursday with a warning that its northern neighbor’s leadership succession could complicate international efforts to rid the communist state of its nuclear weapons.

Coming after months of speculation about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was reported to have suffered a stroke last year, Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were the most extensive and frank public comments on the issue by a senior U.S. official.

“Everybody is trying to sort of read the tea leaves as to what is happening and what is likely to occur, and there is a lot of guessing going on,” she said in reference to talks between Washington and its Asian partners.

“But there is also an increasing amount of pressure, because if there is a succession — even if it’s a peaceful succession — that creates more uncertainty and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society,” she told reporters traveling with her to Asia.

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Speaking on her plane during a flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Seoul, she said the South Koreans are particularly worried “about what’s up in North Korea, what the succession could be, what it means for them, and they are looking for us to use our best efforts to try to get the agenda of denuclearization and nonproliferation back in gear.”

During her meetings in Seoul and later in Beijing, Mrs. Clinton said she would seek a common approach to restarting six-nation talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear programs. Negotiations stalled last year after Pyongyang refused to commit to robust scientific measures to verify its nuclear history.

The challenge could increase because of the succession issue, she said.

“You add to the already-difficult challenge of working with the North Koreans the uncertainties that come from questions about potential succession, this is a difficult undertaking,” she said. “Our goal is to try to come up with a strategy that is effective in influencing the behavior of the North Koreans at a time when the whole leadership situation is somewhat unclear.”

Mrs. Clinton is on a four-country Asian tour — her first overseas trip since taking office last month.

Hours before she arrived in Seoul, the North Korean military issued a statement accusing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of misusing “nonexistent nuclear and missile threats” as a pretext to invade the North.

“The Lee Myung-bak group of traitors should never forget that the [North] Korean People’s Army is fully ready for an all-out confrontation,” said the statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency.

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