LONDON – John Kerry had been secretary of state for little more than a week when North Korea tested a nuclear bomb.
He gathered top aides together for a morning meeting and asked for ideas, prompting a conversation about how to get China to join the United States in putting pressure on Pyongyang, according to a senior administration official who was present. The debate encapsulates America’s struggle to come up with a strategy – sticks, carrots or a combination of both – to convince China to police its own backyard.
As Kerry heads to East Asia for his first time as America’s top diplomat, some progress has been made in convincing Beijing, North Korea’s biggest benefactor, to start getting tough with its neighbor. The question is whether it will make a difference.
North Korea’s government agency said Thursday that it has “powerful striking means” on standby for a launch, amid speculation in Seoul and Washington that North Korea will test-fire a mid-range missile designed to reach the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. It was the latest warning from the North, which launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted an underground nuclear test in February.
A U.S. intelligence report disclosed Thursday concluded that North Korea has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. The report said the Pentagon’s intelligence wing has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that such weapons would be unreliable.
Washington has been putting its hopes in Beijing to rein in the provocative behavior and combative rhetoric from North Korea. China has more leverage over the North than any other country, having massively boosted trade ties with the isolated regime in recent years and maintaining close military relations.
But the U.S. has been frustrated by the reaction from a government that in many ways has different priorities. China, analysts and officials often say, fears the implosion of North Korea’s impoverished state and the instability that would cause immediate damage, more than the North’s nuclear proliferation and missile program. And China remains wary of any enhanced U.S. involvement in its backyard.
“If anyone has real leverage over the North Koreans, it is China,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on Thursday. “And the indications that we have are that China is itself rather frustrated with the behavior and the belligerent rhetoric of ... Kim Jong Un.”
China’s role in containing North Korea is expected to be front and center when Kerry arrives in Seoul today. He then travels to Beijing and Tokyo.
At a meeting Wednesday in London, Kerry and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida “discussed the special role China can play in exerting pressure on the North Korean leadership,” said a State Department official present.
Kerry, the official added, stressed the need to “change the dynamic in North Korea, and he emphasized the importance of continuing to put pressure on North Korea with economic sanctions.” The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the closed-doors meeting and demanded anonymity.
Kerry and the other foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations “condemned in the strongest possible terms” Thursday the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“They condemned DPRK’s current aggressive rhetoric and confirmed that this will only serve to further isolate the DPRK,” the final communique said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “They urged the DPRK to engage in credible and authentic multilateral talks on denuclearization.”
In recent weeks, Washington and Beijing have cooperated on new sanctions against the North and both have decried the increasing threats from Kim Jong Un’s government, which have expanded to include talk of a nuclear strike against the United States. It is not believed to have such capacity, but the provocative rhetoric has officials around the world extremely worried.
At the State Department meeting after North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test, different ideas for how to bring about a new assertiveness from Beijing were tossed around, according to the senior U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the meeting and demanded anonymity.
One approach could be described best as the power of persuasion: Make the case to Chinese authorities, offered many times previously, that both the U.S. and China share a common interest in ensuring a stable Korean Peninsula, without the threat of nuclear war in the Asia-Pacific.
The other approach is more akin to the power of example: Show the Chinese what it means if they cannot control the North’s behavior by beefing up U.S. defenses and sending more American military assets right into China’s backyard.
Over the past few weeks, the Obama administration has applied doses of both, while keeping up diplomatic efforts. President Barack Obama called Chinese President Xi Jinping in mid-March to discuss North Korea.
Military maneuvers in South Korea have served as a reminder of the overwhelming deterrent force the U.S. and its ally maintain. The deployments also have sent a message to Beijing.
But the North’s history of unpredictability means no one knows for sure what it will all mean, even if analysts say North Korea is unlikely to initiate any attack on South Korea like the one that started the Korean War in 1950, and is unlikely to target Japan or American interests in the region.
AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report from Washington.