Kerry Visits Asia as Region Awaits North Korean Actions

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Asia seeking to reassure allies in South Korea and Japan and encourage China to increase pressure on North Korea to drop its threats and nuclear-weapons development.

Kerry arrived in Seoul today to meet with new South Korean President Park Geun Hye. Park last night offered to resume dialogue with North Korea after weeks of threats from Kim Jong Un’s regime to launch attacks against the U.S. and South Korea. The Pentagon’s intelligence branch has concluded the North may be capable of putting a nuclear device on a ballistic missile, according to a report made public yesterday.

Kerry is visiting a region that’s been on edge since February, when North Korea detonated an atomic bomb in defiance of tighter United Nations sanctions. With a possible missile test looming, defusing the situation will require a coordinated message to the totalitarian state that dialogue is preferable to a confrontation that could draw in the U.S.

“Washington and Seoul can keep repeating that they will engage once North Korea does ‘X,’ but North Korea is not going to make the first move,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “The U.S. is probably looking to Seoul to make the first move, and Park’s overture may be that.”

Money Flow

Kerry will travel to Beijing tomorrow, where he will ask new Chinese President Xi Jinping to abide by UN sanctions against North Korea and shut off the flow of money that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction, a State Department official said. Kerry will also urge China, which provides the impoverished North with fuel, to toughen its message to leaders in Pyongyang, the official said.

Park’s comments came after North Korea yesterday reiterated that this week’s closing of the Gaeseong industrial park jointly run with South Korea was temporary. More than 53,300 North Korean laborers have failed to show up for work since April 9, halting operations there for 123 South Korean companies.

North Korea may conduct a weapons test to coincide with the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said yesterday in Seoul. Last April 13, North Korea fired a long-range missile that disintegrated shortly after liftoff, then successfully launched one in December.

The regime yesterday reiterated that it is on a war footing and its warheads are programmed with target coordinates.

‘Nothing Better’

Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father Kim Jong Il as leader in December 2011 and is thought be under 30, has rebuffed offers of international aid in favor of preserving a military-first policy to reinforce his legitimacy.

“I am betting that the young new great leader would like nothing better than to fire off his somewhat-long-planned missile test while Kerry is there,” George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator on North Korea, said in an e-mail.

John McCreary, a former U.S. intelligence analyst, said in his April 10 NightWatch newsletter that videos from the capital of Pyongyang, showing workers preparing the city for the celebration of Kim’s birthday, suggest a test may not happen before Kerry leaves the region.

The U.S. wants to persuade China it’s in its own economic and political interests to reverse a long-standing practice of looking the other way on banned cross-border trade with its ally and neighbor, an administration official said. The two U.S. officials briefed reporters accompanying Kerry on the condition of not being identified.

‘Nuisance Fatigue’

There are signs China is developing “nuisance fatigue” toward North Korea, said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst specializing in the Koreas at the Rand Corp., a research group based in Santa Monica, California.

Chinese exports to North Korea fell 13.8 percent in the first three months of 2013 to $720 million. The $1.3 billion in two-way first-quarter trade between China and North Korea pales beside $63.3 billion between China and South Korea.

China supported recent UN Security Council sanctions in March following North Korea’s third underground nuclear test and, without mentioning North Korea by name, Xi said on April 7 that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”

Kerry should “give the Chinese leaders an understanding of how North Korea’s missile test and nuclear test have changed the threat perception” in the U.S., said Paul Haenle, director of Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. With a new leader in Beijing, “there may be opportunities here that didn’t exist in the past,” he said.

Japan Stop

During Kerry’s stop in Tokyo on April 14, the U.S. and Japan “need to make it clear that nuclear threats will not lead to any compromise,” said Tetsuo Kotani, research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “They need to show North Korea that the way to ensure its security is not through intimidation, but through dialogue.”

Japan this week deployed Patriot missile interceptors, including placing a unit outside the defense ministry in Tokyo, in a show against an anticipated test launch of a North Korean Musudan missile.

In addition to fueling concerns about a military clash, North Korea’s actions may also trigger a nuclear arms race involving South Korea, Japan and even China, said Joseph DeTrani, former head of the National Nonproliferation Center, a part of the U.S. intelligence community.

“I don’t think they are just going to sit there while North Korea builds its nuclear weapons,” DeTrani said at a conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, a policy research group.

Nuclear Option

Leaders of South Korea and Japan, which are protected by the U.S., haven’t tried to develop their own nuclear weapons. China has about 240 nuclear warheads, compared with about 1,700 deployed American nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington research group.

North Korea’s threats are influencing public opinion in South Korea, where two-thirds of those surveyed supported a domestic nuclear weapons program, according to a poll conducted for the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in February, after the most recent North Korean nuclear test.

“If North Korea remains nuclear, South Korea or even Japan should consider the nuclear option,” Chung Mong Joon, a seven-term member of the Korean National Assembly and son of the founder of Hyundai Group, said at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington April 9.

Differing Assessments

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said in a classified report last month that North Korea now has some nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by its ballistic missiles, a finding that surfaced yesterday in a Congressional hearing. The DIA cautioned it has only “moderate confidence” in that finding, which also said that the reliability of the missiles “will be low.”

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took issue with the report’s conclusion, saying North Korea “has not yet demonstrated” that it can arm a missile with a nuclear weapon. South Korea doesn’t believe the North is able to miniaturize nuclear weapons enough to be fired atop a missile, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said today.

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