At her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton expressed support for the Chinese-led six-party negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. But she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the negotiating process championed by the Bush administration is being reviewed.
President-elect Barack Obama said during the campaign that he was willing to try face-to-face diplomacy with leaders of adversary countries, like North Korea, if it would help resolve key problems.
But in her Senate testimony, his Secretary of State-designate said both she and the incoming President believe the six-party process, underway since 2004, has merit both as a negotiating vehicle and as a channel for bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang.
Hillary Clinton told the confirmation hearing that she and outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have had several long conversations on the six-party process as part what she said is an "aggressive review" of North Korea policy by the Obama team.
She said the president-elect is under no illusions about the difficulty of getting Pyongyang to end its nuclear program and that "tough, reality-based diplomacy" is required. "Our goal is to end the North Korean nuclear programs - both the plutonium-reprocessing program and the highly-enriched uranium program - which there is reason to believe exists although never quite verified. And it is our strong belief that the six-party talks, particularly the role that China is currently playing along with our close allies South Korea and Japan, is a vehicle for us to exert pressure on North Korea in a way that is more likely to alter their behavior," she said.
Clinton, under questioning from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, said the process must also end North Korea's role as a nuclear proliferator, saying there is "reason to believe" Pyongyang was involved in a reactor project with Syria in addition to its documented assistance to Libya's nuclear program that was scrapped in 2003.
The six-party talks, in which North Korea committed to end its nuclear program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits, is stalled over Pyongyang's failure to accept a verification plan for the nuclear declaration it made last June.
North Korea said on Tuesday it would hold on to its small arsenal of nuclear weapons until the United States normalized relations with it and drops what was termed a "hostile" policy toward the communist state.
That drew a rebuff from State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack who said Pyongyang will have to meet its six-party commitments before realizing diplomatic benefits. "Certainly we want the six-party process to move forward. It's very clear what its obligations and responsibilities are under that process. Getting to the point where North Korea has a more normal relationship with the rest of the world, including the United States - in order to really get to that point - North Korea is going to have to move through the six-party process, and there is going to have to be a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula," he said.
South Korean newspapers reported on Tuesday that Pyongyang wanted to send its chief nuclear envoy to President-elect Obama's inauguration next week. But officials here say they are unaware of any contact with North Korea on the issue and that, in any case, foreign representation at the event is limited to ambassadors of countries with which the United States has diplomatic ties.