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(News Focus) Kerry, Hagel herald conditional change in U.S. approach toward N. Korea
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (Yonhap) -- With Sen. John Kerry and former Sen. Chuck Hagel nominated to become key players on President Barack Obama's national security team, many expect a mood change in Washington's approach toward Pyongyang.

   Experts, however, emphasize that any changes in U.S. strategy will be limited and conditional on the attitude of North Korea.

   "Senators Kerry and Hagel would be more open than most in Washington about conditional engagement with North Korea," said Patrick M. Cronin, a senior researcher at the Center for the New American Security. "But without tangible change in North Korean policies, engagement will have no traction."

   Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hagel, a moderate Republican from Nebraska, have yet to undergo Senate confirmation hearings, during which their views on North Korea and other major foreign affairs issues will likely be clarified.

   Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is known for his support for more U.S. involvement with Pyongyang.

   Kerry met with North Korea's nuclear envoy, Ri Yong-ho, in New York in March. Ri was there to attend an informal security conference.

   The senator's decision to meet Ri came after the announcement of the Feb. 29 deal between Washington and Pyongyang, which is now virtually scrapped.

   Kerry was caught off guard when North Korea pressed ahead with a long-range rocket launch in April.

   Following another rocket launch in December, Kerry issued a brief statement calling it a "provocative and destabilizing act."

   "It will only succeed in further isolating an already isolated North Korea, and the United States, our allies, and our partners will take appropriate steps to safeguard our national security," he said.

   Few expect a problem between Kerry and Hagel in dealing with North Korea, which has become a bipartisan issue in Washington.

   Both are Vietnam War veterans and they know the scars and costs of military conflicts.

   Hagel, Obama's defense secretary nominee, has shown a mixed record on such diplomatic issues as whether to get tougher on so-called rogue states.

   In 2002, Hagel openly said the U.S. should try to improve relations with North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which George W. Bush had branded as part of an "axis of evil."

   "Senator Kerry has always favored greater engagement with North Korea and former Senator Hagel has been critical of hawkish, neo-conservative foreign policy in the past," said a source privy to diplomatic and congressional affairs.

   "I thus suspect that both would advocate greater engagement, especially if President-elect Park (Geun-hye) in Seoul seeks to tone down the more hard-line policies of President Lee (Myung-bak)," the source added on background.

   The source pointed out that Obama's principled or firm approach toward Pyongyang in his first term is attributable to the communist regime's repeated provocations, including the detention of two U.S. female journalists, missile and nuclear tests, and two deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010.

   The change of the line-up in Washington's national security team may provide Pyongyang with a chance to reset its relations with Washington.

   It remains unclear whether North Korea will seize the opportunity or react with additional provocations.