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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

What will Clinton and Gates say in South Korea?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are traveling to South Korea on July 21 for bilateral talks with their counterparts in the South Korean government. It’s pretty unusual for two secretaries to be in South Korea at the same time. What is going on?

Secretaries Clinton and Gates will be participating in the inaugural “two plus two” round of security talks in the Korean Peninsula, so-called for the two secretaries meeting their South Korean counterparts. At issue is the sinking in March of the ROKS Cheonan, a small South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors. While initial speculation centered on whether it ran across an old sea mine left over from the Korean War, a subsequent investigation found it had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo fired from a “midget submarine.” It is a despicable act, an act of war, and the South Korean government has been very cautious not to ratchet up tensions with the North. The United Nations Security Council even condemned the incident, though it shied away from naming North Korea as the culprit.

The U.S. has had a muted response to the Cheonan’s sinking. The politics surrounding its sinking are complicated: China disputes the charge that a North Korean torpedo sank it, and U.S.-China relations have become stressed over American arms sales to Taiwan. While Secretaries Clinton and Gates are probably going to discuss the Cheonan sinking, and possibly even additional U.S. and South Korean responses to it, there’s little chance we’ll see anything surprising come from the talks.

The “two plus two” talks later this month are unrelated to a series of talks that should be happening right now to discuss the Cheonan’s sinking. Today, July 13, North Korean officials were to meet with officials from the U.S.-led United Nations Command at Panmunjom, the village where the U.S. and North Korea signed the 1953 armistice to halt Korean War (the war never officially ended). At the last minute, North Korea’s military abruptly canceled the meeting, with no hint as to when they want to hold a discussion about the Cheonan.

With direct talks with the North scuttled, Secretaries Gates and Clinton will only be able to discuss South Korea’s eventual reaction to the Cheonan’s sinking, along with regional security issues. Looming large among those issues is a growing dispute over South Korea’s efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. South Korea generates nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and wants the ability to reprocess its old nuclear materials both for newer power plants and to reduce storage space. The challenge is that this reprocessing produces plutonium: good for power plants but also good for building nuclear weapons. A 1974 agreement with the U.S. prevents South Korea from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for just this reason.

Of course, “fuel reprocessing” is the exact trick North Korea used to create plutonium for its burgeoning nuclear industry. While South Korea probably isn’t seeking nuclear weapons, the U.S. is deeply concerned with the worldwide growth of nuclear reprocessing and enrichment, especially as it ponders how to respond to Iran’s and North Korea’s own nuclear weapons programs.

Secretaries Gates and Clinton have their work cut out for them. Not only is the Cheonan incident not going to go away, it is unclear what anyone can do about it. Air strikes into North Korea aren’t a good idea, as they would likely provoke a nasty backlash from the world’s fourth largest army. The U.S. doesn’t have many options for economically or politically isolating the regime, either — it is already one of the most isolated on earth, and until China decides to join in the isolation and sanction North Korea (so far it has refused) there is little the U.S. or South Korea could do directly.

On the other hand, if Secretaries Clinton and Gates request their South Korean counterparts join them in pressuring China to leverage its considerable influence over the North Korean regime, there stands a good chance that at least North Korea’s leaders will feel the pinch: the so-called “palace economy” of whiskey, Western goods like Mercedes-Benz cars and DVDs, and other consumer goods is actually very susceptible to outside pressures, but since most of it comes through China only the Chinese can meaningfully affect it.

The Korean peninsula’s nuclear issues are a thornier issue. It is unlikely Secretaries Clinton and Gates will discuss the matter in any great detail. South Korea’s plan to reprocess nuclear fuel has sparked considerable opposition in the arms control community. And it’s difficult to think of circumstances under which the U.S. will agree to let South Korea manufacture weapons-grade nuclear materials, however noble their intentions may be.