Korea Tensions Overshadow Clinton's China Trip

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in China Monday but much of her visit is focusing on tension in the Korean peninsula. She said the U.S. supports South Korea’s decision to take North Korea before the U.N. Security Council for torpedoing one of the South’s warships.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in China today. The focus, though, is on the neighboring Korean peninsula. Clinton offered American support for South Korea's decision to take North Korea before the U.N. Security Council after it torpedoed a South Korean warship.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): This is a highly precarious situation that the North Koreans have caused in the region, and it is one that every country that neighbors or is in proximity to North Korea understands must be contained.

MONTAGNE: North Korea has overshadowed high-level talks with China that have brought Secretary Clinton, Treasury Secretary William(ph) Geithner and other U.S. officials to Beijing.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us to talk about those developments there.

Hello, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, South Korea's president promised to hold North Korea to account. What will the South do, and what is North Korea's response?

KUHN: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's statement this morning was pretty strong. In it, he solemnly called on North Korea to apologize for what he said was the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy ship. He promised to take the matter before the Security Council, and he also promised to cut off trade, investment and tourism ties between the two Koreas. Secretary of State Clinton backed these actions. They said they were appropriate. She also said she was working with China to pressure North Korea to curb its belligerent actions.

MONTAGNE: How serious is a threat of military conflict?

KUHN: The two sides - the two Koreas live at very close quarters, and very few analysts see military action as an option. However, Secretary Clinton did mention that President Obama has ordered has ordered U.S. military commanders to prepare to resist North Korean aggression and to beef up the U.S. military posture in the region. So, generally, the trend of the U.S. pulling back from the DMZ, giving more responsibility, giving operational command to South Korean troops may be postponed. In other words, the U.S. military posture in the region may be beefed up in response to this.

MONTAGNE: Now, China is believed to have the most pull with North Korea. Can China persuade North Korea to back down?

KUHN: Well, certainly, the U.S. would like China to take a more aggressive role here, but China is in a tough position. It's tried to portray itself as an intermediary, as a broker here, and it's sort of tried to play North Korea and South Korea with an even hand. And this makes that role as a sort of a neutral broker very hard to hold. But it probably will try to do something within the Security Council while talking with North Korea on the side to try and get it to scale back its actions.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, the U.S. and China are also discussing other issues: trade, climate change, human rights. Any sense of breakthroughs in any of those other issues?

KUHN: Well, clearly, you know, with all these officials in Beijing, it's seen as a very important meeting. President Hu Jintao came out today to personally reiterate China's stance on the currency, that it would gradually allow its currency to appreciate, thereby making its exports to the U.S. more expensive. But that's not anything new. And also, the fact that the European currency has been appreciating means China is less willing to move quickly on this front. And both countries are under domestic pressure at home, which makes any breakthroughs very difficult.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing.

KUHN: Thank you.

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