North Korea emerges as test for Kerry

North Korea’s belligerent threats are emerging as the first major test for John Kerry as secretary of State.

During a four-day visit to East Asia aimed at tamping down tensions on the peninsula, Kerry offered to hold direct talks with Kim Jong Un’s government and pressed the Chinese to publicly reprimand their rogue ally. Neither approach delivered immediate results, leaving Kerry with no easy fix to a growing crisis that risks overshadowing his push for peace in the Middle East.

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“All past attempts to convince North Korea to end its nuclear program have stopped, started and failed,” Kerry told CBS on Monday during a halt in Japan, his last stop before heading home. “You better believe me that’s why everyone is taking this differently. None of us want to go through the same cycle of a phony negotiation that’s being used as an excuse while the program continues.”

Kerry’s visit to South Korea, China and Japan followed weeks of escalating rhetoric from North Korea with a threat to launch a missile with the range to hit all of Japan and the U.S. territory in Guam. Kerry made some diplomatic headway — he was able to get all three countries to join U.S. calls for a renewal of multilateral talks that have been frozen since 2009. But he ran into trouble during his stop in China.

The Obama administration says China, which props up North Korea’s economy, holds the key to getting the country to disarm. During a stop in Beijing over the weekend, Kerry told Chinese leaders that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula could prompt a reduction in U.S. missile defenses in the area. He didn’t specify which ones, but the administration has sent two ships equipped with Aegis antimissile systems and sped up missile defenses in Guam since the crisis began.

“On missile defense, we discussed absolutely why we have taken the steps that we have taken,” Kerry said Saturday. “Obviously if the threat disappears — i.e. North Korea denuclearizes — the same imperative does not exist at that point of time for us to have that kind of robust forward-leaning posture of defense.”

Republicans denounced the remarks as an unacceptable quid pro quo, and Kerry backtracked a day later.

“The president of the United States deployed some additional missile defense capacity precisely because of the threat of North Korea. And it is logical that if the threat of North Korea disappears because the peninsula denuclearizes, then obviously that threat no longer mandates that kind of posture,” he told reporters in Japan on Sunday. “But there have been no agreements, no discussions, there is nothing actually on the table with respect to that.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the explanation.

“I thank Secretary Kerry for clarifying his remarks about American missile defenses,” he said Monday. “The security of our country and its allies should never be a bargaining chip. Convincing China to end its status quo support of Pyongyang is the key to making progress toward the denuclearization of North Korea.”

Despite growing signs of tension between China and North Korea, Beijing has so far refused to abandon its troublesome ally out of concern that the implosion of  Kim’s rule would flood China with destitute refugees and leave a U.S.-allied government at China’s doorstep. That has left Kerry to reach out directly to Kim, an unpalatable option.

“If he will meet the obligations that we’ve all set out that are necessary, we are prepared to negotiate on a full range of issues,” Kerry told CBS.

The comments rankled North Korean foes on Capitol Hill who want nothing to do with one of the world’s worst human-rights violators.

“If we give them food, if we give them oil, if we give them money, they will come around and they take our money and run,” Reuters quoted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as saying.

And in the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to take up legislation targeting North Korea’s funding sources. Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill that the administration, like its predecessors, has a “zeal for the deal” when it comes to North Korea, and that Congress’s role is to hit the brakes.

“There is a pull-and-push between the zeal for the deal, which is always present in an executive branch, versus the experience on part of the legislative body,” Royce said last month. “My presumption is that eventually it’s going to become all too obvious that the 1994 framework agreement [with North Korea] failed. ... And at that time, it’s time to find a creative approach that would work. My goal is to continue to develop a bipartisan consensus in the House and in the Senate that will allow us to address some of the real challenges that we face, rather than to simply put them off.”