So far, Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to Asia has been long on symbolism, as a maiden excursion should be.  It was important to reassure our “cornerstone” ally, Japan, and in Tokyo she was pitch-perfect.  In Jakarta, she said the right words about Indonesian democracy.

So much for the easy part.  The next stopover is Seoul.  There, the secretary of state will have to confront one of the planet’s most vexing problems, North Korea.  No nation has ever had satisfactory relations with Pyongyang.  Consider the United States. Over six decades, the most abhorrent regime in history has, at almost every turn, bested the world’s strongest power.  Whether bearing carrots or carrying sticks, Republicans and Democrats have failed to accomplish all but minimal objectives.  Lack of achievement, unfortunately, is a bipartisan legacy.

Selig Harrison, writing in the Washington Post yesterday, unwittingly outlined how badly we have failed.  The Korea specialist correctly noted that Pyongyang has taken a hardline turn in recent months and then attributed the change in approach to Kim Jong Il’s stroke last August.  The medical excuse sounds a bit too convenient — it is more likely Mr. Kim never contemplated giving up his most destructive weaponry and recent negotiations on verification have flushed out his real intentions.   In any event, Harrison, perhaps America’s leading advocate of soft policies toward Pyongyang, suggested we just live with a nuclear North Korea.  Unfortunately, some in the Obama administration feel the same way.

Does Mrs. Clinton?  There are strategies for defanging Kim and taking away his arsenal of nukes — such as squeezing him harder and putting China on the spot for supporting Pyongyang.  When America’s top diplomat rolls into Seoul tomorrow, she will have to begin to tip her hand as to how she will deal with the seemingly impossible Kimist state.  Up to now, Clinton has gotten away with saying that a North Korean missile launch would be “very unhelpful” and repeating generalities about reaching out to Pyongyang — statements made yesterday from Tokyo — but that won’t be good enough when she is on Korean soil.  Maybe it’s not fair for the South Koreans to demand specifics so soon into her tenure, but no one should have expected Kim to give her time to formulate policy.

And when it comes to Washington’s Korea policy, she has to get it right the first time.  After all, the Iranians, about a year away from building a nuclear device of their own, are watching to see whether she can disarm Pyongyang.  Mrs. Clinton’s trip gets serious tomorrow.

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