North Korea crisis: Can John Kerry persuade China to lean harder on Kim?

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Chinese officials in Beijing Saturday, with tensions spiraling ever higher in the region as North Korea threatens to carry out a ballistic missile test.

Paul J. Richards/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (third l.) is greeted by US Ambasador to South Korea Sung Y. Kim (l.), and Deputy Director General of the Foriegn Ministry Seoung-hyun Moon (c.) upon arrival at Seoul Air base in Seoul, Friday. Kerry meets with Chinese officials in Beijing on Saturday.

With the North Korea crisis continuing to spiral to ever-higher tensions, Secretary of State John Kerry faces the first major test of his short tenure as he meets with Chinese officials in Beijing Saturday.

The North is threatening to carry out a ballistic missile test that Secretary Kerry warned Friday would be “a big mistake.” Against that backdrop, the chief US diplomat will seek to persuade Pyongyang’s only important ally to do more to rein in the North and help quiet the region’s alarm bells.

Kerry and other US officials made it clear Friday that the United States expects China to use its leverage as North Korea’s economic lifeline and diplomatic partner.

“China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here, and I hope that in our conversations when I get there tomorrow, we’ll be able to lay out a path ahead that can defuse this tension,” Kerry said at a press conference Friday in Seoul, South Korea. China would be key in “moving this in the right direction,” he added, “which is towards negotiations and towards a reduction in the current level of tension.”

Although Kerry hinted that diplomacy with the North remains possible, any diplomatic hopes are likely to be drowned out, at least initially, as North Korea’s provocations ratchet up further before presumably receding, many regional experts believe.

North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, could hold off on what appears to be an imminent missile test while Kerry is in Beijing, to avoid embarrassing Pyongyang’s closest ally, some say. But he could order a launch of several intermediate-range ballistic missiles Sunday, when Kerry will be in Tokyo, the last stop of his first trip to Asia as secretary of State.

Another possible date is Monday – the birthday of North Korea’s founder, the late Kim Il-sung.

The North is likely to test a missile with a range of more than 2,000 miles, which means it could reach all of South Korea, Japan, and even Guam – where the US has decided to station missile-defense batteries in response to North Korea’s recent bellicose threats.

Not all North Korea analysts are as optimistic as the Obama administration seems to be about prospects for enlisting Beijing’s help in pressuring Pyongyang. But even some skeptics say Kerry must lean in hard on the Chinese – in particular by laying out how the North’s escalating threats are forcing the US to respond with security measures that can’t be to Beijing’s liking.

“The message to China has to be very clear and forceful,” says Bruce Klingner, senior Northeast Asia fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center in Washington. “

The picture he says Kerry must lay out: China has “looked the other way” as North Korea has made steady progress in its nuclear and missile programs – and recently as Pyongyang has issued increasingly specific and violent threats against US allies South Korea and Japan, as well as against the US itself. “That reticence [on the part of the Chinese] has emboldened North Korea,” Mr. Klingner says.

But Kerry must go further, he adds, and remind the Chinese that in response to unrestricted belligerence by the North, “the US and its allies in the region will be doing things” – such as missile defense and flights by nuclear-capable B-52s, among other measures – “that the Chinese won’t like.”

Administration officials took it as a promising sign that Beijing ended up allowing approval (instead of using its veto) in March of a United Nations Security Council resolution, which outlined new and toughened sanctions in response to the North’s February nuclear test.

Beijing’s cooperation, Klingner says, came at the price of a watered-down set of sanctions. But others say the approved sanctions, if fully enforced, could be effective in eventually modifying Pyongyang’s behavior.

That appears to be the thinking behind what some administration officials say will be Kerry’s efforts to persuade the Chinese to fully enforce the recent sanctions, in particular the measures targeting Pyongyang’s access to financial assets.

Kerry will lay out for the Chinese how North Korea’s access to funds, despite Security Council resolutions, is allowing Pyongyang to pursue its illicit and destabilizing nuclear and missile programs, US officials say. The message will be that it is just as much in Beijing’s interests to enforce the resolutions as it is in Washington’s, Seoul’s, or Tokyo’s.

In his comments in Seoul, Kerry also indicated that any missile test by Pyongyang would be a violation of existing Security Council resolutions and thus would prompt a return of the North Korea issue to the Council.

That could mean a new round of measures against the North.

Kerry said in Seoul that the US favors a diplomatic solution to the current crisis – but he also insisted that the US will not follow the old pattern of rewarding North Korea with aid and direct talks in exchange for promises that are never carried out.

Talks can only resume, Kerry suggested, when the North demonstrates that it is “serious” about denuclearization.

That condition would seem to fly in the face of recent declarations from Mr. Kim that the North considers itself a nuclear power and will never give up nuclear weapons. But what the North really seeks, many North Korea analysts say, is international recognition of its nuclear status – something the US says it is determined to deny the Kim regime.

Denying Kim the nuclear mantle remains the US long-term goal, but before that can be tackled is the matter of North Korea’s growing ability to periodically throw the region and beyond into high-anxiety jitters.

Kerry’s test in Beijing will be whether he can coax China to do more to address both the immediate and longer-term North Korea challenges.

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