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Secretary Kerry’s First Visit to Northeast Asia: Rolling the North Korea Stone Back Up the Hill

by Scott A. Snyder
April 16, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) walks with U.S. Ambasador to South Korea Sung Y. Kim (L) and deputy director general of South Korea's Foreign Ministry Moon Seoung-hyun upon his arrival at a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul, April 12, 2013. Kerry begins a three-day visit to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo as U.S. and South Korean officials say the nuclear-armed North appears poised to test a medium-range missile after weeks of threatening statements. (Kim Hong-ji/courtesy Reuters)


Secretary of State John Kerry’s first visit to Northeast Asia came against the backdrop of increasing tensions stoked by North Korean evacuation announcements and missile-launch threats.  His meetings with new leaders Park Geun-hye, Xi Jinping, and Abe Shinzo succeeded in changing the tone of the conversation about North Korea from a military to a diplomatic focus and to strengthen  diplomatic consultation processes with new administrations in South Korea and China, but it remains to be seen whether there will be substantive shifts in the respective policies of the various governments.

Kerry’s first-ever visit to Seoul provided an opportunity for newly-elected President Park Geun-hye to lay out a hopeful vision for the future of the Korean peninsula and to signal a public willingness to move from confrontation to dialogue.  But North Korea wasted no time in shooting down Park Geun-hye’s public calls for diplomacy,  referring to it as a “crafty trick” to pursue dialogue and confrontation at the same time.   Kerry issued a surprisingly strong call on North Korea not to conduct a missile test at a moment when there were expectations for an imminent missile launch, along with assurances that the United States is prepared to defend South Korea, and he can count it a success that the North Koreans decided not to step over this red line before he was able to return home.  Presidents Park and Obama will meet at the White House on May 7 to affirm their close coordination.

In Beiing,  the anchor stop on Kerry’s itinerary, the change in tone included high expectations for Chinese cooperation and an apparent downplaying of the “rebalance,” or pivot, which patiently awaited Kerry’s last stop in Japan before meriting public mention.  The shift toward diplomacy with North Korea drives up expectations for Chinese performance.  But despite the change in tone and Kerry’s apparent willingness to put missile defense improvements on the negotiating table, it remains to be seen whether China’s policies toward North Korea will shift or whether North Korea is prepared to reciprocate the shift in public emphasis on diplomacy as opposed to confrontation.

In rhetorical terms, there was absolutely no sign of change in China’s goal of maintaining peace and stability and denuclearization or the shared goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through peaceful negotiations.  One potentially positive development was the establishment of a series of high-level dialogue opportunities over the next few months, including the planned visit of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, intelligence exchanges, and the Strategic and Economic Dialogue set to take place in July.

In advance of Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January 2011, intensified Sino-U.S. consultations appeared to serve as a brake on further escalation of inter-Korean tensions following the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.  That period also contained combined U.S.-ROK efforts to reinforce deterrence and Chinese diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang.  An intensified Sino-U.S. consultation process over North Korea in the coming months might delay North Korea’s January pledge to conduct more missile and/or nuclear tests following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2087.

Secretary Kerry’s visit to Tokyo seemed to underscore the difficulties that the United States faces in effectively finding the right mix of deterrence and diplomacy necessary to catalyze united and firm regional support for U.S. denuclearization and nonproliferation objectives in North Korea.  For Japan, Kerry’s apparent dialing back on deterrence in favor of diplomacy appears to have raised anxiety levels in Tokyo.  Japan’s response underlines the question of whether the United States can now advance its diplomatic efforts toward North Korea on a new model, without such an approach being perceived as a return to the regular cycle of brinkmanship-negotiation-and reward. The Obama administration continues to face the burden of showing that a return to negotiations with North Korea will not represent what former Defense Secretary Gates referred to as buying the same horse for a third time.

But the most difficult critics of any administration’s policy toward North Korea have always been found on the home front. With the emergence of public differences within the intelligence community over North Korea’s capabilities, as revealed by last week’s leak of a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate assessing that North Korea may already have attained the capacity to place a nuclear weapon onto a missile, the Obama administration’s challenge of managing a new policy initiative in the face of Congressional scrutiny just got harder.  This is too bad, because the administration will increasingly find itself in the middle of a paralyzing fight over North Korea policy, when arguably the policy toward North Korea that the U.S. government can least afford is to stand by and do nothing.

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