U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned North Korea against moving forward with an anticipated new nuclear test that the Obama administration and its predecessors have failed to stop despite numerous pacts, sanctions and threats.
Kerry, who replaced Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, joined with South Korea and Japan in calling on the North to cease its “provocative behavior” or face “significant consequences from the international community” in a Feb. 3 statement.
But Korea watchers and experts say Kerry will need to raise far more specific threats to improve on the West’s history of making deals that North Korea rarely abides by for long.
“There’s a reluctance in the White House to have a deal with North Korea only to have it repudiated again,” said James Acton, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“But President Obama knew Kerry’s interest in engagement when he nominated him, and presidents are usually willing to take greater risk in their second term,” he said Feb. 4.
Kerry penned an opinion piece in 2011 in which he criticized the administration for its “inadequate” response to North Korea’s continual flouting of agreements with the USA to end its nuclear and missile programs, and its unprovoked attacks on South Korea.
His recommended solution was to abandon the talks involving many nations and North Korea pursued by the Bush and Clinton administrations. The idea of the multi-party talks was to have the North feel the pressure from a unified front of nations that sanction it by curbing food and monetary aid.
But Kerry advised that direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea alone would be best, starting out with talks on missing U.S. servicemen in the Korean War as a way to begin discussions that could lead to weightier matters Time may not be on his side, experts say.
North Korea has said it will soon conduct its third test of a nuclear bomb, after launching a satellite into space in December. If North Korea masters a delivery system for nuclear weapons, it would join Russia and China as the only non-U.S. allies with such capabilities.
Victor Cha, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it was important for him to show that his first statement on North Korea was in conjunction with Japan and South Korea.
“Everyone’s worried about another test and it’s important for the three allies to be on the record and state very clearly and in unambiguous terms that they’re going to seek the most severe sanctions they can seek,” said Cha, who served at the U.S. National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
Cha cautioned that there is not much the United States and its allies can do to alter North Korea’s behavior in the short term. He says the best way remains to convince China to take steps against its ally that would force the North to notice.
Cha suggests persuading China to shut down trade inside China that benefits the North, or withhold shipments of food and heating oil supplied by China. China could also better enforce sanctions it has already approved against the smuggling of technology by the North’s space agency, Cha said.
Acton said ending the North Korea nuclear program is practically impossible, “short of invading the country and physically stopping them from testing.”
North Korea has received economic aid from past deals it made with the United States in return for ending its nuclear program and complying with international treaties to open up its facilities for inspections. It took the aid, then secretly continued its programs until tests and intelligence made it apparent it had violated the pacts.
Bruce Bechtol, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst who teaches at the U.S. Army War College, said it really is not up to the United States solely to alter the North’s behavior. He said Kerry’s instructions from Obama will likely be to work closely with the South Koreans and have them set the tone.
Incoming South Korean president Park Geun Hye, a conservative, campaigned on a policy of engagement with North Korea but with measurable concessions from it as well.
“We’re likely to see not much of a change at all from Hillary Clinton,” Bechtol said. “Because our president is the same and his goal will be to stick by the South Korean president.”