MANAS, Kyrgyzstan — Secretary of State John Kerry arrives Friday in a tense Asia, where he’ll urge China to deliver a “tough message” to North Korea and reassure allies that the Obama administration stands behind them as anxiety rises over Pyongyang’s saber rattling.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said it was time to “lower temperatures” on North Korea after meeting Thursday at the White House with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after a particularly hostile month in which Pyongyang canceled the 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War fighting, threatened to launch missiles at the United States, and closed a major industrial zone that had been the symbol of cooperation between North and South. The latest developments followed a long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test in February.
“Nobody wants to see a conflict on the Korean peninsula,” Obama said. “But it’s important for North Korea, like every other country in the world, to observe the basic rules and norms that are set forth, including a wide variety of U.N. resolutions.”
Obama spoke as a new U.S. intelligence report was made public that suggested North Korea had advanced its technology enough to arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
During House Armed Services Committee questioning Thursday of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., read what he said was an unclassified section of a Defense Intelligence Agency report. The report had said “with moderate confidence” that North Korea could launch a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead but that its “reliability will be low.”
Kerry’s trip, his first to the Asia Pacific region since taking office, begins in Seoul and ends in Tokyo on Monday. But it’s the middle stop – Beijing – that’s at the crux of U.S. policy on North Korea.
As the pariah state’s closest ally, China is the West’s reluctant interlocutor, treading gingerly between its own frustrations with Pyongyang and an overarching desire for regional stability. China must decide whether North Korea can continue to act with impunity and threaten its interests and still face no consequences. “Clearly there are strong signals being sent,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
The diplomatic track hasn’t worked for years – even coupled with the harshest sanctions on the planet – and analysts say it remains to be seen whether the Chinese will leverage their position as the main supplier of food and fuel to push a harder line. China’s support of a U.N. Security Council resolution that brought even further sanctions after North Korea’s third nuclear test in February was welcomed by the administration, though some analysts remained skeptical. Kerry is expected to push the Chinese to adhere to the sanctions.
“Although China clearly opposes North Korea’s nuclear tests, maintaining the status quo remains its main priority,” Victor Cha and Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a report last month. “All parties seem to be content with the resolution but partly because we have been socialized into expecting so little from China that there’s excitement when China shows even a bit of sternness. The real test of China’s commitment will be in the follow-through.”
State Department officials concede that Kerry’s dual deterrence/reassurance message is an old one, but they note that this time it’s being delivered to new leaders: Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. With a trio of fresh partners and a renewed White House commitment to the Asia Pacific, Kerry is hoping for a breakthrough before the crisis spirals into a conflict that would bring global security and economic perils.
In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Eight nations warned North Korea that its “aggressive rhetoric” would only further isolate it.