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(2nd LD) Kim Jong-il is physically, mentally healthy: U.S. commander

All Headlines 06:24 September 16, 2009

(ATTN: ADDS Clinton's remarks in paras 6-7)
By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il demonstrated that he is fit enough mentally as well as physically to control state affairs in his meeting with former U.S. President Bill Clinton last month, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces said Tuesday.

"Former President Clinton's trip to North Korea as a private citizen, that was a great intelligence for us," Adm. Timothy Keating said in a forum here hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Kim Jong-il was upright. He appears to be cozy and entertaining reasonable discussions with the former president. We were less certain of those capabilities than we are now."

Keating was referring to Clinton's trip to Pyongyang in early August to meet with Kim for more than three hours to win the release of two American journalists held for illegal entry, a meeting that paved the way for possible rapprochement between North Korea and the U.S.

Kim extended an invitation to Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, and the Barack Obama administration has said it is considering sending him, with a decision just weeks away.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told a daily news briefing that "no decisions have been made" on Bosworth's possible Pyongyang trip, reiterating the U.S. position that "we're willing to talk to North Korea only insofar as it advances our goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

In a joint media availability with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton buttressed Kelly's remarks.

"We are in the process of exploring that with our partners, but we are totally unified," she said. "The United States is not acting in any way that is not part of an agreed-upon process that has been worked out with the six-party members. But they also recognize that one of the ways we perhaps can get North Korea to engage is by explaining, directly and clearly, what the purpose is and what the possible consequences and incentives could be."

The U.S. has repeatedly insisted that any bilateral meeting should be seen as part of the six-party talks, also involving China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang has said it is done with those negotiations due to international sanctions after its nuclear and missile tests.

Keating said he supports international efforts to denuclearize North Korea through the multilateral dialogue, citing the instability surrounding a possible power transition to Kim Jong-il's third and youngest son, Jong-un.

"That (Kim Jong-il's meeting with Clinton) doesn't necessarily indicate what's going to happen in North Korea, for the succession plan is not clear," he said. "We continue to seek, with the State Department lead, the resumption of six-party talks for a certifiably denuclearized peninsula. We, the Pacific Command, remain firmly in support of the State Department efforts to get to certifiable denuclearization."

The possibility of a regime collapse in North Korea has been a topic of discussion since rumors surfaced last year that Kim suffered a stroke without a clear heir. In the months that followed, speculation has grown that he is grooming 26-year-old Jong-un to succeed him.

Keating said in July that the U.S. has come up with scenarios to cope with any contingency in North Korea in the event of the death of the ailing leader.

"We are prepared to execute a wide range of options in concert with allies in South Korea and in discussions through (the Department of) State, which would have the lead, with countries in the region, and internationally if necessary," he said. "I don't think it is axiomatic that the departure of Kim Jong-il means a national security crisis. We'd hope it wouldn't. But we are going to be prepared if it does mean that."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February has also touched on the sensitive issue of North Korea's possible leadership change. "There is an increasing amount of pressure because, if there is succession, even if it is a peaceful succession, that creates even more uncertainty and it also may encourage behaviors that are even more provocative as a way to consolidate power within the society."

In previewing the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the first to be released under the Obama administration, a CSIS report said last month that a government team is examining several scenarios, including "regime collapse in North Korea." The U.S. reportedly has reached out to China for guidance, but the Beijing government refused to discuss the possibility of a regime change or collapse in the North, apparently to avoid provoking its ally.

Keating said that his command is ready for any contingencies in North Korea, including nuclear weapons tests and missile launches.

"We watch North Korea as carefully as we can," he said. "North Korea will conduct activities that are perplexing in some ways... Whatever military action and position and capabilities are necessary, we are prepared to provide it."

He reconfirmed the target date of 2012 for the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops back to Seoul.

"We have been firm and consistent in holding ourselves and our Republic of Korea allies to that agreement," he said.

Some conservatives demand a possible delay in the transfer, citing a lack of readiness on the part of South Korean troops to confront a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The admiral, however, said South Korean troops are fully capable.

"It is from our position desirable," he said. "It is achievable. And so we'll get there. We are conducting significant exercises with ROK allies." ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.


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