North Korea: What message will John Kerry take to Asia next week?

Secretary of State John Kerry will start a trip to China, South Korea, and Japan next week. Now that the US has taken military precautions, he's expected to speak softly.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) shakes hands with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se at the State Department in Washington Tuesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s upcoming trip to China, South Korea, and Japan signals a shift to diplomacy in the US response to North Korea’s recent bout of intense saber-rattling.

After sending nuclear-capable B-52s to the skies and antimissile ships to the waters around the Korean Peninsula, as well as missile-defense batteries to Alaska and Guam, the Obama administration is now moving to ratchet down the tensions.

The aim of Secretary Kerry’s Asia trip will be to reassure allies and partners that the US, after having taken necessary military precautions, is focused on finding the diplomatic steps – both short-term and further into the future – to address the nuclear-armed North’s belligerence.

“While recent US actions have shored up the concerns of our allies and moved to protect the US from potential attack, now is the time for reinforcing as well the diplomatic and economic measures that will stifle North Korean behavior and force a reset on their part,” says George Lopez, a former United Nations sanctions monitor on the North Korea case.

Especially noteworthy is how China – the reclusive and impoverished North’s only close ally – has recently signaled a willingness to get tough with Pyongyang, in particular by allowing a new round of UN Security Council sanctions aimed at the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, he says.

Others say China’s UN action is just one manifestation of a growing weariness with North Korea and, in particular, with its new young leader, Kim Jong-un.

“You have seen it at the United Nations, we have seen it in our private discussions, and you see it in statements in Beijing,” said Kurt Campbell, the former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs and an architect of President Obama’s “Asia pivot,” who left the State Department in February.

Speaking Thursday at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Mr. Campbell said there is a "subtle shift" in Chinese foreign policy. Equally important, he added, is that Beijing’s shifting mood has not been “lost” on Pyongyang.        

“How Secretary Kerry’s upcoming visit builds on [this] is crucial,” says Professor Lopez, who is now at University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

The State Department this week acknowledged the key role China will play in any diplomatic effort on North Korea, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland singling out China as the country with “the most leverage” on Pyongyang.

In preparing for his trip, Kerry this week held “intense conversations” by telephone with Chinese officials including State Councilor Yang Jiechi, according to Ms.  Nuland. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his counterpart, the new Minister of National Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan.

The US should also be planning for what to do if the North carries out another missile test in the coming days, as some military movements detected by South Korea suggest it might be planning, says Lopez.

Despite the recent US military buildup in the zone, Lopez says the US should refrain from responding militarily and instead use any continuing North Korean provocations to cement the growing international unity on the North’s behavior.

“Shooting [a missile] down plays more into the North Korean version of their ‘war,’ ” Lopez says. Better for the US, he says, to go with “our understanding” that a missile test “should and can prompt more unified international and regional condemnation that works in our favor.”

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