Clinton heads to South Korea as missile controversy brews

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for South Korea on Thursday on the third leg of her four-nation tour of Asia.

The visit comes at a time of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula and after U.S. officials cited evidence that North Korea was gearing up for a launch of a long-range missile. North Korean officials have disputed the claim, saying in the country’s official news agency that Pyongyang was preparing to launch a satellite. But Pyongyang said Thursday that it was ready for an “all-out confrontation” with South Korea, calling President Lee Myung-bak a traitor and accusing him of “frantically inciting hostility” toward North Korea and “kicking up … war hysteria,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said. Seoul called the North’s statement a repeat of past bluster. “It’s seen as an attempt by North Korea to increase uneasiness about security and widen the ideological divide within South Korea,” said Kim Ho-Nyun, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry.

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Speaking at a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone this week, Clinton warned that a possible North Korean missile launch would be “very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward.” She said the United States is “watching very closely” actions by North Korea. Clinton also said Tuesday that the relationship between the United States and North Korea could improve if North Korea abides by the obligations that it has already entered into, and verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear program. If that happens, there is “a chance to normalize relations, to enter into a peace treaty rather than an armistice and to expect assistance for the people of North Korea,” she said. Clinton wrapped up her stop in Indonesia on Thursday after meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to “discuss the close and growing partnership with Indonesia and perspectives on common interests in Southeast Asia.”

Clinton left for Asia Sunday on her first overseas trip as secretary of state and is also slated to travel to China. Her trip represents a departure from a diplomatic tradition under which the first overseas trip by the secretary of state in a new administration is to Europe.