U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a stark warning to North Korea on Friday not to test-fire a mid-range missile, while rejecting a new U.S. intelligence report suggesting significant progress in the communist regime's nuclear weapons program.
Kicking off four days of talks in an East Asia beset by increasing North Korean threats, Kerry told reporters in Seoul that Pyongyang and its enigmatic young leader would only increase their isolation if they launched the missile that American officials believe has a range of some 2,500 miles — or enough to reach the U.S. territory of Guam.
"If Kim Jong-un decides to launch a missile, whether it's across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community," Kerry told reporters. "And it will be a provocation and unwanted act that will raise people's temperatures."
Kerry said the test would be a "huge mistake" for Kim.
"It will further isolate his country and further isolate his people who are desperate for food and not missile launches," he warned. "They are desperate for opportunity and not for a leader to flex his muscles."
Kim Jong-un has 'choice to make'
Kerry's diplomatic tour, while planned long in advance, is unusual in that it brings him directly to a region of escalated tensions and precisely at a time when North Korea is threatening action. The North often times its military and nuclear tests to generate maximum attention, and Kerry's presence on the peninsula alone risked spurring Pyongyang into another provocation. Another key date is the 101st birthday of the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15.
After meeting South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Kerry also weighed in on an intelligence report that rocked Washington on Thursday and suggested that North Korea now had the know-how to arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead — even if the weapons would lack reliability. Citing the Pentagon's assessment, Kerry rejected the finding and said that Pyongyang still hadn't developed or fully tested the nuclear capacities needed for such a step.
Kerry offered strong words of solidarity for South Korea, praising Park's "bright vision" of a prosperous and reunified Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons. By contrast, he said North Korea's Kim, by estimates only 29 or 30 years old, has a choice to make between provocation and returning to talks to de-escalate tension and lead to the end of its nuclear program.
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"It's up to Kim Jong-un what he decides to do," Kerry said.
A missile launch, he said, "is not going to change our current position which is very clear: We will defend our allies. We will stand with South Korea and Japan against these threats. And we will defend ourselves."
Speaking beside Kerry, Byung-se called for more United Nations action against Pyongyang if it commits another provocation.
He refused to comment specifically on the U.S. intelligence report, saying only that the North has "high nuclear and missile capabilities" but that it is still some time away from a nuclear bomb that is "small, light and diversified."
Both Yun and Kerry kept the door open for future negotiations with Pyongyang.
But both seemed to suggest that they were unlikely in light of the North's increasingly bombastic threats, including nuclear strikes on the U.S. Most experts say those are unfeasible based on the North's current capacity and would never be explored seriously because the U.S. response would be overwhelming against a government focused primarily on survival.
Kerry said any talks with North Korea have to lead toward denuclearization.
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 play this round-robin game that gets repeated every few years, which is both unnecessary and dangerous."
China's influence sought
To mitigate the threat, Kerry is largely depending on China to take a bigger role in pressuring North Korea to live up to previous agreements to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It's a strategy that has worked poorly for the U.S. for more than two decades.
Beijing has the most leverage with Pyongyang. It has massively boosted trade with its communist neighbour and maintains close military ties. And the U.S. believes the Chinese could take several specific steps to show North Korea it cannot threaten regional stability with impunity.
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These include getting China to cut off support for North Korea's weapons of mass destruction program, said the state department official and another senior administration official, though they rejected that the U.S. was seeking a commercial embargo against the North.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about Kerry's meetings in advance.
Neither could say, however, whether Pyongyang was actually listening at this point. One of them stressed that he "wouldn't say there is no conversation between them," but declined to describe the level and impact of Chinese-North Korean contacts.