US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in South Korea on Friday on an unusual diplomatic journey, traveling directly into a region bracing for a possible North Korean missile test and risking that his presence alone could spur Pyongyang into another headline-seeking provocation.
Kerry was kicking off four days of talks in East Asia amid speculation that the North’s unpredictable regime would launch a mid-range missile designed to reach as far as the US territory of Guam. Kerry also planned to visit China and Japan.
North Korea often times its provocations to generate maximum attention, and Kerry’s presence in Seoul will provide plenty of that, even if the United States is engaged in intense diplomacy with China, the North’s benefactor, in an effort to lower tensions. Another key date on the calendar is April 15, the 101st birthday of North Korea’s deceased founder, Kim Il-sung.
Kerry’s trip coincides with the disclosure of a new US intelligence report that concludes North Korea has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. The analysis, disclosed Thursday at a congressional hearing in Washington, said the Pentagon’s intelligence wing has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon would be unreliable.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said afterward that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced” at the congressional hearing.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he concurred with little and noted that the report alluded to at the hearing was compiled by the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency and was not an assessment by the entire US intelligence community. “Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” he said.
President Barack Obama on Thursday urged calm, calling on Pyongyang to end its saber-rattling while sternly warning that he would “take all necessary steps” to protect American citizens.
Kerry’s trip marks his first foray to the Asia-Pacific as America's top diplomat, spearheading the effort to “pivot” US power away from Europe and the Middle East and toward the world’s most populous region and fulcrum of economic growth.