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Clinton's North Korea trip spurs hope – and unease – in Asia

Bill Clinton spoke to Kim Jong-il about detained South Koreans and missing Japanese citizens. But N. Korea's neighbors are skeptical of any move away from six-party framework for dialogue.

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Bill Clinton's successful rescue mission to North Korea has stirred relief, hope, and a measure of unease in Asian capitals that are grappling with the risk posed by an unpredictable nuclear-armed neighbor.

By using a diplomatic back channel to obtain the release of two jailed American reporters, the Obama administration has shown that it wants to be flexible in its pursuit of reduced tensions. But some critics – with an eye to years of unfruitful six-party talks – have warned that the US must be wary of paving the way for dialogue that could sidestep the North's neighbors.

That skepticism may be warranted, though much depends on what message, if any, Mr. Clinton brings back to the Obama administration, says Daniel Pinkston, an analyst in Seoul, South Korea, for the International Crisis Group. But knocking the visit as detrimental to regional diplomacy is a stretch, given that six-party talks are in hiatus and relations are so frayed.

"The situation is already so bad that I don't think that this visit could make it worse," he says.

Still, US allies in Asia are seeking reassurances that the US isn't giving into North Korean demands for bilateral nuclear-disarmament talks. So far, US officials have publicly resisted, arguing that North Korea should return to the six-party talks that bring together China, Japan, Russia, the US, and North and South Korea. That stance has been welcomed by negotiating parties, who were told in advance of the visit.

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