WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Asia to reassure allies South Korea and Japan and seek help from new Chinese President Xi Jinping in trying to defuse tensions with North Korea.
Kerry is scheduled to arrive today in Seoul, the first of three planned stops in a region that’s been on edge since February over a North Korean nuclear weapons test, threats of war and visible preparations for a missile launch or another nuclear test.
In addition to concerns about an intended or accidental military clash, North Korea’s actions may trigger a nuclear arms race involving South Korea, Japan and even China, said Joseph De Trani, former head of the National Nonproliferation Center, a part of the U.S. intelligence community.
“I don’t think they are just going to sit there while North Korea builds its nuclear weapons,” he said at a conference at the Wilson Center in Washington, a policy research group.
Leaders of South Korea and Japan, which are protected by the United States, haven’t tried to develop their own nuclear weapons. China has about 240 nuclear warheads, compared with about 1,700 American nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington research group.
North Korea’s threats are influencing public opinion in South Korea, where two-thirds of those surveyed supported a domestic nuclear weapons program, according to a poll conducted for the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in February, after North Korean’s most recent nuclear test.
“If North Korea remains nuclear, South Korea or even Japan should consider the nuclear option,” Chung Mong-joon, a seven-term member of the Korean National Assembly and son of the Hyundai industrial group’s founder, said at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington on April 9.
Another way to restrain North Korea would be for the U.S. to return tactical nuclear missiles to South Korea, Chung said. President George H.W. Bush withdrew battlefield nuclear weapons from most overseas positions in 1991. Chung said nuclear deterrence was effective between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and a South Korean weapon would provide a similar balance.
The “lesson of the Cold War” is that “nuclear weapons can hold the peace,” Chung said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday in Washington that “we do not advocate the return of tactical weapons” to the Korean peninsula.
The regime headed by Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s supreme leader since his father’s December 2011 death, has threatened to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its enemies, though it’s not known whether it’s able to do so.
A weapons test may be timed for the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Thursday in Seoul. Last April 13, North Korea fired a long-range missile that disintegrated shortly after liftoff, then successfully launched one in December.
“I am betting that the young new great leader would like nothing better than to fire off his somewhat-long-planned missile test while Kerry is there in the region,” George Lopez, a former U.N. sanctions investigator on North Korea, said in an email.
John McCreary, a former U.S. intelligence analyst, said videos from Pyongyang, showing workers preparing the city for the celebration of Kim’s birthday, suggest a test may not happen before Kerry leaves the region.
“Missile launches are likely to be featured parts of the celebration,” McCreary wrote in his April 10 NightWatch newsletter, published by Kforce Government Solutions Inc. “However, an armed provocation that would risk general war seems likely to be delayed until after the 15 April holiday.”
The government-controlled Korean Central News Agency reported about “a nationwide spring campaign for landscaping the country,” in which “people from all walks of life, including servicepersons, have turned out in the campaign to green streets, parks, pleasure grounds, etc.”
In another signal of a possible moderation in tone, North Korea Thursday said its closing of an industrial park jointly run with South Korea is a temporary action.
Kim’s “primary objective is to consolidate and affirm his power,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Thursday.
In Seoul, Kerry is scheduled to meet with new President Park Geun-hye, followed by talks with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
“It is important for the South to prevent a provocation from happening, and South Korea needs to reaffirm its commitment to the U.S. alliance to do so,” said Huh Moon-young, director of the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification’s North Korean studies center.
The U.S. faces questions about whether and how to seek diplomatic dialogue with North Korea over denuclearization and a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that ended Korean War combat, said Lim Eul Chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
“The Obama administration has maintained that a restart in inter-Korean dialogue must precede any revival in U.S.-North Korean talks,” Lim said April 9 in a phone interview.
As North Korean threats escalate, Lim said there’s a greater need for the U.S. to engage with the regime “to figure out what exactly the North wants, what it is trying to achieve by potentially carrying out a military provocation.”
Kerry goes to Beijing April 13 to urge officials there to increase pressure on North Korea, which relies on China for fuel oil and consumer goods. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Xi, who became president last month, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. In addition to Korea, issues include cybersecurity, trade, and offshore territorial disputes.
During Kerry’s stop in Tokyo on April 14, the U.S. and Japan “need to make it clear that nuclear threats will not lead to any compromise,” said Tetsuo Kotani, research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “They need to show North Korea that the way to ensure its security is not through intimidation, but through dialogue.”
Japan this week deployed Patriot missile interceptors, including placing a unit outside the defense ministry in Tokyo, in a show against an anticipated test launch of a North Korean Musudan missile able to reach Japan.