- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009



Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday openly raised the possibility of a power struggle in North Korea to succeed the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il-comments certain to anger the reclusive regime.

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“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 told reporters as they flew to Seoul, referring 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.”

Coming after months of speculation about Mr. Kim’s health, prompted by reports that he suffered a stroke last year, Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were the most extensive and frank public comments on the succession issue by a senior U.S. official and raised questions about whether she meant to say what she said or misspoke out of diplomatic inexperience.

Early Friday, she tried to soften the effect of her remarks, saying at a news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan that Washington will deal with the North Korean government that currently exists.

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that Mrs. Clinton’s remarks, while acknowledging a reality, “seem to go further than other officials in expressing concern about a failed succession.”

They also “indicate that the U.S. is making contingency plans with Japan and South Korea and reaching out to China for any information” it might have, he said.

U.S. officials traveling with Mrs. Clinton said she was simply offering a view on why the North has been sending mixed messages, including some provocative ones.

Mrs. Clinton 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.”

Senior officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations have said in private that their repeated attempts to engage Chinese officials on the issue of Mr. Kim’s succession have been rebuffed.

Although Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, never hid his intention to pass the torch to his son, the current leader has been silent on the matter. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, and brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, have been mentioned as possible successors, as well as a collective body.

Regardless of who will be in charge in Pyongyang, “the policies are unlikely to change,” Mr. Klingner said. In fact, the new person “may even be more conservative, or more Catholic than the pope,” he added, pointing out that the North’s “elite feels threatened by any kind of opening of the country to outside influence.”

Mrs. Clinton is on a four-country Asian tour that included earlier stops in Japan and Indonesia. Her next stop is China.

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

At Friday’s news conference, Mrs. Clinton announced the appointment of Stephen Bosworth, former ambassador to Seoul, as the Obama administration’s special representative for North Korea.

She also urged the North to stop the “war of words” it has been engaged in for weeks.

“North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with the Republic of Korea,” she said.

Hours before Mrs. Clinton’s arrival on the Korean Peninsula, the North Korean military issued a statement accusing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of misusing “non-existent nuclear and missile threats” as a pretext to invade.

“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.

As Mrs. Clinton flew to Asia on Monday, Pyongyang claimed the right to launch missiles - a move the secretary said in Tokyo would be “very unhelpful.”

Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York who is also visiting Seoul this week, said that the news from the North was “not good.”

“They have been moving the goalposts since last year, and they told the recent group of American visitors that they want to be treated as a nuclear weapons state,” he said. “This has been a growing element of their rhetoric since last year, and I fear that it may be more than posturing.” One of the U.S. visitors was Mr. Bosworth.

Just before Mrs. Clinton arrived in Seoul, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, citing local officials, reported on its Web site that South Korean and U.S. intelligence have discovered a North Korean facility that can produce a small amount of highly enriched uranium.

The report could not be independently confirmed, but the Bush administration accused the North in 2002 of having secretly developed a program to enrich uranium for use in building nuclear weapons. No facilities were discovered at the time, and U.S. intelligence agencies offered different assessments of the limited information they had.

Mrs. Clinton did not comment on the report, but said that Washington and its partners in the six-party talks - Japan, South Korea, China and Russia - should focus on the North’s plutonium program, because there are no doubts about it.

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