SEOUL, South Korea — Top U.S. policy-makers did a diplomatic dance with their South Korean counterparts on Wednesday in a display of solidarity intended to calm South Korean concerns about the American commitment.
In the highlight of highly publicized visits to Seoul by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary Robert Gates, Clinton announced what she said were new U.S. North Korea sanctions. The sanctions, she said would "increase our ability" to halt North Korea's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction along with other "illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs."
Sanctions would target individuals in Kim Jong Il's regime and banks that aid in trade of arms and luxury goods that are banned under earlier United Nations measures.
Analysts doubt, however, if new U.S. sanctions will seriously go beyond those already imposed by the U.N. Security Council more than a year ago after North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.
"I don't really think there's anything new," said Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, noting that the U.N. sanctions already ban North Korea from importing or exporting weapons and also from importing luxury goods for the North Korean elite.
CONFIDENCE BOOSTER FOR SOUTH KOREA
Han, who chairs the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, sees the visit to Korea by Secretary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates as needed to build up confidence in the wake of the sinking the Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors in March. A South Korean investigation, in which experts from the U.S., Britain, Australia, and Sweden participated, has blamed the sinking on a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine.
Clinton and Gates have to "get their money's worth in coming here," said Han, in reference to the media attention surrounding their visit.
He sees the visit - and elaborate military exercises planned for next week in waters off South Korea's east coast - as needed to help raise confidence here after the U.N. Security Council issued a weak statement on the Cheonan attack, failing to blame North Korea directly. The visit "will have the effect of reassuring the Korean public about the U.S. commitment," he adds. "That is why Clinton has to talk tough."
NEW SANCTIONS 'DON'T LOOK IMPRESSIVE'
Andrei Lankov, a Russian analyst who now teaches in Seoul, was not surprised by the U.S. announcement of sanctions.
"They were expected especially when the U.N. Security Council chose to have a very cautious approach and did not introduce new sanctions," said Lankov, based years ago in North Korea with the embassy of the former Soviet Union. "They don't look very impressive," especially since "very few countries sell arms to North Korea and those who do are not likely to be influenced by any decision made by the U.S."
Gates and Clinton made a symbolic visit to the truce village of Panmunjom in the middle of the demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War. For the first time in the long history of such visits to Panmunjom, 40 miles north of Seoul, the American visitors were accompanied by the South Korean foreign and defense ministers.
After returning from the DMZ, Clinton, Gates, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, and Defense Minister Kim Tae-young held a lengthy four-way conversation in Seoul on that covered a wide range of issues.
The talk seemed to edge carefully around a response to North Korea's stated interest in returning to six-party talks on its nuclear program that were last held in Beijing in December 2008.
The U.S. has appeared considerably more interested than South Korea at this stage in resuming the talks, but Clinton said afterward that returning to the table was "not something we're looking at yet." The Americans and the South Koreans agreed that North Korea had to show signs of a change in attitude. "To date," said Clinton. "We have seen nothing."
WORRIED ABOUT MORE ATTACKS FROM NORTH
Gates worried about the possibility that North Korea could stage more attacks - a concern also expressed Tuesday by James Clapper, the top Pentagon intelligence official, at Senate hearings in Washington on his nomination to become director of U.S. intelligence.
With North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il building up his youngest son Kim Jong-eun as his successor, Gates sees the need for North Korea to present a strong appearance before South Korea and the world. That's "something we have to look at very closely," he said, "and be very vigilant."
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the "two-plus-two" meeting was that it was the first of its kind between the highest American and South Korean foreign and defense officials.
"Japan and the United States have been having 'two plus two' for years," said Han Sung-joo at the Asan Institute. "Korea wanted to have that for a long time."
Han said the meeting was brought about in part by talks between President Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, who wound up the day hosting Clinton and Gates at a state dinner. The two presidents, in summits in Washington and Seoul, he notes, "got along extraordinarily well."