The United States and Japan opened the door to new nuclear talks with North Korea if the sabre-rattling country lowered tensions and honoured past agreements, even as it rejected South Korea’s latest offer of dialogue as a “crafty trick”.
US secretary of state John Kerry told reporters in Tokyo that North Korea would find “ready partners” in America if it began abandoning its nuclear programme.
Japan’s foreign minister Fumio Kishida also demanded a resolution to a dispute concerning Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by North Korean officials.
The diplomats seemed to point the way for a possible revival of the six-nation talks that have been suspended for four years.
China has long pushed for the process to resume without conditions. But the US and allies South Korea and Japan fear rewarding North Korea for its belligerence and the endless repetition of a cycle of tensions and failed talks that have prolonged the crisis.
Mr Kerry’s message of openness to diplomacy was clear, however unlikely the chances appeared that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government would meet the conditions.
“I’m not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness,” Mr Kerry told US-based journalists.
“You have to keep your mind open. But fundamentally, the concept is they’re going to have to show some kind of good faith here so we’re not going to around and around in the same-old, same-old.”
Tensions have run high on the Korean Peninsula for months, with North Korea testing a nuclear device and its intercontinental ballistic missile technology.
The reclusive communist state has also issued almost daily threats that have included possible nuclear strikes against the United States. Analysts and foreign officials say that is still beyond the North Koreans’ capability.
While many threats have been dismissed as bluster, US and South Korea say they believe the North in the coming days may test a mid-range missile designed to reach as far as Guam, the US territory in the Pacific where the Pentagon is deploying a land-based missile-defence system.
Japan is the last stop on a 10-day trip overseas for Mr Kerry, who visited Seoul and Beijing as well in recent days.
In South Korea, he strongly warned North Korea not to launch a missile and reaffirmed US defence of its allies in the region. In China, he secured a public pledge from Beijing, the lone government with significant influence over North Korea, to rid the North of nuclear weapons.
Before flying back to the United States, Mr Kerry told students at the Tokyo Institute of Technology that the important thing was staying united on North Korea.
At each stop along his trip, Mr Kerry stressed that the United States wanted a peaceful resolution of the North Korea situation six decades after a ceasefire ended the Korean War.
But North Korea yesterday served a reminder of the difficult task ahead. Its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said the government had no intention of talking with Seoul unless the South abandoned its confrontational posture, as the North called it.
Seoul had pressed North Korea to discuss restarting operations at a joint factory park on the border and President Park Geun-hye has stressed peace opportunities after taking power from her more hardline predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. The presidency expressed regret with North Korea’s rebuttal yesterday.
At a news conference in Tokyo, Mr Kerry stressed that gaining China’s commitment to a denuclearised North Korea was no small matter given its historically strong military and economic ties to North Korea.
But he refused to say what the Chinese were offering to do concretely to pressure the North into abiding by some of the conditions it agreed to in a 2005 deal that required it to abandon its nuclear programme.
In remarks to US journalists, Mr Kerry said that under the right circumstances, he would even consider making a grand overture to North Korea’s leader, such as an offer of direct talks with the US.
“We’re prepared to reach out,” he said. Diplomacy, he added, required risk-taking and secrecy such as when President Richard Nixon engaged China in the 1970s or U.S. back-channel talks were able to end the Cuban missile crisis a decade earlier.