The fever pitch surrounding North Korea’s threats of hostile action began to ease Friday, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in South Korea to push a diplomatic track that would include China to defuse the tension.
Kerry warned at a news conference alongside South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se that “North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power” and vowed to defend the United States’ Asian allies in the event of a conflict. But he also reiterated that the administration preferred diplomacy, including direct talks with Pyongyang if it agreed to move toward dumping its nuclear program.
“They have to be really serious,” Kerry said. “No one is going to talk for the sake of talking, and no one is going to continue to play this round-robin game that gets repeated every few years, which is both unnecessary and dangerous.”
Separately, in another sign of the softening rhetoric, a U.S. official in Seoul told visiting reporters that there was no indication of an imminent missile launch, no North Korean troop buildup on the border, no extraordinary military exercises and no alarm from foreign diplomats based in Pyongyang. The 28,500 U.S. forces in South Korea weren’t on any special alert.
“The tensions around the world are much more than they are here,” the official said.
The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss sensitive diplomatic and military topics, added that Pyongyang had even invited foreigners to North Korea to run a marathon and that Seoul was holding its annual spring festival as usual. In fact, the anxiety over North Korea was far overshadowed here by the leaking overnight of a new single by PSY, the South Korean superstar behind the viral smash hit song “Gangnam Style.”
“Given the latest cycle of rhetoric, I’d like to reassure you that we are monitoring the situation very, very closely, and essentially life goes on here in Seoul,” the official said. “We are basically conducting business as usual. We see no escalatory things going on.”
The U.S. official said a missile launch now might actually work toward reducing tensions by giving the young North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, “an off ramp,” a way for him to step back from his threats and still save face.
“You could say, ‘I’ve stood up to the United States; I launched a missile. We did this, and now I can safely come back to my people and say, “I am the great leader. I’m like my father, I’m like my grandfather and I have a strong hold on our defense,” ’ ” the official said.
At the White House on Friday, spokesman Jay Carney said North Korea’s behavior was part of a pattern of saber rattling but that the U.S. was taking the issue seriously. He said it had taken a number of steps, including postponing the planned test this month of a Minuteman III missile, "recognizing that it could be inaccurately construed by some as an attempt to exacerbate tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
The move away from hawkish language came a day after a U.S. intelligence report raised alarm about North Korea’s nuclear advancements. Unclassified parts of the Defense Intelligence Agency report that were made public in a congressional hearing stated with “moderate confidence” that North Korea could launch a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead.
The agency wouldn’t confirm or deny the report or its finding, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, “I can’t touch that one . . . Some of it’s classified; some of it’s unclassified.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a subsequent statement that North Korea “has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.”
Pyongyang hasn’t yet tried such a device in the field, and the agency’s report noted that its “reliability will be low.” It was also far from clear whether North Korea’s ability to fit missiles with nuclear warheads, if indeed it can, extends to the sort of intercontinental missile capable of hitting the United States that requires complicated re-entry vehicles to descend to a target.
Kerry and Yun, the South Korean foreign minister, said the North Koreans’ program was worrisome but probably not yet capable of a successful start-to-finish deployment of a nuclear warhead.
“We believe, regarding the nuclear capability of North Korea, it’s quite high,” Yun said. “Nevertheless, at the current time right now, their militarization, diversification, we believe that in that way they probably need to develop a little bit further.”
The U.S. official offered a similar assessment. “I think it’s premature to say that they’ve been able to put everything together, from the warhead, launching it, getting it to re-enter and actually target something,” he said.
Pyongyang launched a satellite into space in December, a development widely seen as cover for testing its ballistic missile program, which was followed two months later by a test of what it described as “a smaller and lighter A-bomb.” Both those developments ran afoul of United Nations Security Council resolutions that have called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. North Korea, meanwhile, has said it’s ready to wage nuclear war against South Korea or the United States.
Concerns were further stoked Monday when Pyongyang announced that it was pulling some 53,000 workers out of the Kaesong industrial park, a joint venture with South Korean businesses in North Korea that’s seen as a crucial bellwether of relations. The venture had continued to operate in the past even as North Korea spouted thus-far empty rhetoric about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea has described the suspension of operations in the zone as temporary, but it hasn’t set a timeline for how long that might last.
Even China, North Korea’s biggest backer, has signaled impatience. On Sunday, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, seemed to upbraid Pyongyang in a public speech when he said that, “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”
The gamble for U.S. diplomats, however, boils down to: Can the Obama administration rely on the new Chinese leadership to take new steps – such as making some of its aid conditional or searching “suspicious” vessels – to really put the screws to Kim’s regime?
In the past, the Chinese have been reluctant to push too hard, figuring that a bellicose-but-intact North Korea is better than a collapsed dictatorship full of hungry, oppressed people right across the border.
Kerry will travel to China on Saturday.
“China is a big country and has a long tradition of turning a blind eye to efforts by companies to do business with North Korea,” a senior State Department official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol. “This is now something that China has to focus on very clearly, because North Korea’s behavior is putting China’s own interests at risk, so the conversation Kerry will have with the Chinese is one that seeks to define areas of common interest.’’
Lesley Clark and Matthew Schofield contributed to this article from Washington.