John Kerry might well be wondering what he has let himself in for. Half way through a ten-day global trip that has immersed him in the Arab-Israeli peace process and Syria’s civil war, on Friday the new US secretary of state flies into the middle of the latest North Korea crisis.
Making his first visit to Asia since taking office, Mr Kerry will travel to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo at the very time North Korea could test its new medium-range ballistic missiles in what is widely believed to be an attempt to force new concessions or aid from the international community.
In a trip that will set the tone for the international response to the latest threats from North Korea, Mr Kerry’s objective will be to resist pressure from Pyongyang and provide continued reassurance to the US’ South Korean and Japanese allies, while also cajoling China into putting more pressure on its North Korean ally.
The new round of pledges from Pyongyang to create a “sea of fire” follow a familiar pattern, but US officials admit that the current crisis on the Korean peninsula is unusually tense because so little is known about the intentions of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-eun.
“His primary objective is to consolidate his power. First and foremost, he is trying to show that he is in control,” said James Clapper, director of national intelligence, on Thursday. Mr Kim did not appear to have an end-game other than getting acceptance “from the world and specifically the US of North Korea’s arrival as a nuclear power which would entitle him to recognition and accommodation and aid”.
Yet while North Korea has won concessions after previous episodes of bluster, the lack of willingness to give ground this time was underlined by Thursday’s G8 summit, which included a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” North Korea’s nuclear programme and threats by ministers to impose new sanctions if the new missile test goes ahead.
“There is no disagreement with the United States over North Korea,” said Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, on Wednesday.
According to Joseph DeTrani, former US special envoy for North Korea: “Pyongyang believes we will blink, that if they threaten enough and intimidate enough, we will give them something in return. But I don’t think anyone is prepared to do that any longer – no one wants to cave in.”
The united international response to North Korea’s threats puts further pressure on China, which has publicly shown its displeasure at the recent escalation in rhetoric, providing Mr Kerry an opening during his Saturday talks in Beijing. The US and other Asian governments want China to take further steps against North Korea, including restricting some trade and closing down bank accounts.
Kurt Campbell, until recently the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, believes there have been “subtle shifts” in China’s attitude to North Korea which cannot have been “lost” on Pyongyang. “You have seen it at the United Nations. We have seen it in our private discussions and you see it in statements in Beijing,” he said. “The most important new ingredient has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit.”
More broadly, Mr Kerry’s trip will be closely watched for any hints he gives about his views on the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. At his confirmation hearing in January, he appeared to join the critics who believe the administration has placed too much emphasis on beefing up its military presence in the region, which was bound to alienate China.
“We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China,” he said. “And the Chinese take a look at that and say: ‘What’s the United States doing? Are they trying to circle us?’ I think we need to be thoughtful in how we go forward.”
However, as a result of the latest North Korea crisis, the US has sent even more assets to the region, including missile defence batteries to Guam which could also reduce the potential threat of China’s own missile force.
Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of defence, was unapologetic about any Chinese opposition to the latest military build-up. “If North Korea is causing the US and others to take actions which they [the Chinese] find to be the sort of thing that they do not like to see, there is an easy way to address that,” he said earlier this week.