April 15 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State John Kerry ended his Asian tour with an agreement to work with China, Japan and South Korea to lure North Korea back into nuclear talks. He also left the door open for a U.S. meeting with a volatile dictator who is raising tensions in the Pacific region.
“We’re prepared to reach out,” Kerry told a group of reporters traveling with him in Tokyo yesterday. Any meeting with Kim Jong Un’s government would have to be at the “appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance.”
Kerry devoted his first foray in Asia as the top U.S. diplomat to calming tensions on the Korean peninsula, an effort that has gained some momentum after China agreed to join the U.S. in outlining a road map toward a resolution.
Starting in Seoul and ending in Tokyo, Kerry’s mission was geared toward resurrecting nuclear talks with North Korea that collapsed four years ago. Kerry remained guarded on details and frequently evoked the need for “quiet” diplomacy -- a leitmotif in a trip that also saw him attempt to revive Mideast peace talks -- in order to be effective in breaking recalcitrant positions.
“I can see a way forward,” Kerry explained. “It requires different pieces to fall together.”
Kerry cited President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 as an example of the need to keep back-door maneuvers secret to give space for negotiations to pay off. In his private dealings with China, Kerry said he would keep his cards close to his chest.
“Subtlety and definite secrecy and absence of advertisement” are needed in some diplomacy, the former U.S senator and Vietnam War veteran said.
“The main course of events has turned to beginning talks,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. Kim predicted that a dialogue with North Korea may start in two to three weeks and cautioned there is a “possibility North Korea will show armed protest one last time next week.”
Diplomats are now focused on whether the Communist regime will commemorate April 15 -- the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth -- with the test-launch of a missile that may be a threat to Japan or even Guam. The region has been on edge since February, when North Korea detonated an atomic bomb in defiance of the United Nations Security Council.
“The tedious back-and-forth will go on for quite some time as North Korea will not accept these offers easily,” Dong Yong Sueng, senior fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute, said in an interview.
Kerry flew to China, Japan and South Korea at a time when new leaders, all born around the same time and all second or third-generation politicians, have come to power in the three countries.
That gave Kerry a potential opening to chart a new course. On the eve of his April 11 arrival in Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun Hye had invited North Korea to resume a conversation. In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan hadn’t shut the door on North Korea and looked to “China to play its role.”
At a speech today in Tokyo, Kerry said the governments of all three countries he had visited are united with the U.S. in restraining Kim’s regime.
“There can be no confusion on this point,” he said at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “The North’s dangerous nuclear missile program threatens not only North Korea’s neighbors, but also its own people. The United States remains open to authentic and credible negotiations on denuclearization, but the burden is on Pyongyang.”
For all these diplomatic entreaties, North Korea still spurns overtures by its southern neighbor as “empty shell” efforts without content, reported the Korean Central News Agency, the regime’s vehicle to communicate with the world.
To improve the chance of success in dealing with North Korea, the U.S. looks to China to use its influence as the regime’s biggest trading partner.
Looking to put a show of unity on display, Kerry stood next to China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, as the men pledged to work together to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear pursuits. China’s unusual decision to have a top official seen speaking publicly next to a U.S. official was read by Kerry as a sign China is frustrated with an erratic Communist ally.
“If the Chinese came to us and said, ‘Look, here is what we have cooking and so forth,’ I am not going to tell you today I am going to shut the door on something that is logical or has a chance of success,” Kerry said yesterday. The U.S. had been involved in six-party talks with North Korea that included South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Kerry today welcomed “China’s strong statement of its commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” adding that the world benefits from a stable and prosperous China that “respects the will of its people” and “also plays by the rules.”
The coming together of the U.S. and China, economic rivals frequently at odds on foreign policy, has more to do with coaxing North Korea to return to the table than it involves piling on pressure, according to Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” Yang Jiechi said late April 13 in translated comments while accompanied by Kerry at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, site of Nixon’s visit. “The issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue.”
Some China specialists in the U.S. government are less than optimistic about China’s readiness to pressure a longtime ally to abandon its nuclear weapons program without substantial American concessions, such as agreeing not to position nuclear weapons-capable ships or planes within range of North Korea. The specialists spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have access to classified materials.
If such conditions are how China sees “denuclearization,” one official said, it’s hard to see any path toward an agreement because the U.S. is capable of hitting North Korea with submarines, and with bombers based as far away as Missouri.
Other U.S. specialists, who agreed to discuss Kerry’s trip on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly, expressed more optimism because China’s interests in stability and economic growth outweigh ideological solidarity with a North Korean ruler they don’t consider as predictable as his father and grandfather. Similar shifts in China’s interests were the opening for diplomacy by Henry Kissinger and Nixon four decades ago.
For now, the Chinese have given little indication they are willing to bend to U.S. calls, however subtly put, to implement UN sanctions on North Korea by cutting off the flow of fuel and luxury goods to the country.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” Yang said while he sat next to Kerry. “The issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue.”
That is not to say China’s words won’t reach the ears of Kim Jong Un, who took over in North Korea in December 2011 after his father died.
“North Korea won’t take South Korea’s offer to talk, and the U.S. and China’s efforts for a peaceful solution, lightly,” South Korean professor Yang said in an interview. “As a first step, I expect talks between North and South to resume on normalizing Gaeseong,” a jointly run industrial park.
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