By Anne Gearan
The Washington Post
TOKYO — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invited North Korea to resume disarmament talks, appealing Sunday for a step back from the threat of war even as the North may be ready to test-launch a missile capable of hitting close ally Japan and U.S. bases in the Pacific.
He opened the possibility of new direct contacts between the United States and North Korea, something the reclusive and unpredictable state has sought before as a way to guarantee that the United States will not attack. Kerry offered no such bargain, but he made clear that the failure of past negotiations will not prevent him from making another attempt.
"We're prepared to reach out" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kerry said. That would require "the appropriate moment and the appropriate circumstance," he added.
Kerry said he was speaking "personally," and a State Department official said afterward that the United States has made no official offer of new government-to-government talks.
"Our position hasn't changed, and there are no plans to move toward direct talks, because North Korea has shown no willingness to move in a positive direction," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to clarify Kerry's remarks.
Given that former NBA star Dennis Rodman is the most prominent American to have met with the 30-year-old Kim, Kerry said a meeting with a more traditional envoy may be forthcoming. The State Department opposed Rodman's February visit to Pyongyang, viewing it as a reward for bad behavior, and ignored Rodman's suggestion that all Kim really wants is a phone call from President Barack Obama.
"It may be that somebody will be asked to sit down," Kerry told a group of reporters who traveled with him to the three main U.S. allies in Asia — visits overshadowed by the threat of new conflict with North Korea.
Japan is Kerry's final stop on a 10-day world trip that took him from Istanbul to Tokyo, with stops in the Middle East and London. Attempts to address seemingly intractable problems were a theme for Kerry, who is trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, speed the end of fighting in Syria and defuse the perennial threat of conflict with the Stalinist government of North Korea.
Diplomatic advances with China, North Korea's most important ally and underwriter, offer the promise of drawing the North back to talks that could rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, Kerry said. The North has conducted three nuclear tests and is thought to be moving toward a full nuclear weapons capability. Its government has called nuclear weapons a fundamental part of its identity and vowed it will never give them up.
New talks would be aimed at giving the North a reason to reverse that stance. Diplomats in South Korea, China and Japan have pledged to explore the possibility despite a history of concessions to North Korea that have not stopped its nuclear development.
Of the three, South Korea sounded the most eager for negotiations, Japan the least. Both would be on the front lines of any conflict with North Korea, and Kerry repeated at each stop that the United States would defend its allies.
But the Associated Press reported Sunday that North Korea had rejected a proposal by the South to resolve rising tensions through dialogue, calling it a "crafty trick."
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who appeared with Kerry at a news conference, said North Korea must honor commitments made in previous negotiations to scale back its nuclear and missile program. Japan also insists on a restatement of North Korean intent to resolve cases of Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by the North.
Kishida appeared leery of China's apparent willingness to intercede with North Korea, a development Kerry is hailing as a potential way out of the standoff. Japan wants to make sure its disputes with China over navigation and land rights in the South China Sea are not pushed aside, and Kishida took care to outline the Japanese position again Sunday.
North Korea has readied midrange missiles for a probable test launch meant to show that it can attack U.S. allies and bases. The missiles have a range of about 2,500 miles, putting South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in those nations and on Guam at risk.
North Korea regularly ignores U.N. Security Council prohibitions on such missile launches and nuclear tests, and it has reneged on disarmament pledges from past negotiations.
Pyongyang recently said it would restart a nuclear reactor whose closure was the only lasting accomplishment from fitful international bargaining that included the United States.
Those talks, which included direct U.S.-North Korean discussions on the sidelines, fell apart nearly four years ago. Another effort failed in the 1990s.
Kerry said he is stepping carefully, with an eye to past failures.
"We spent years in the same dynamic, so it's fair to try to require some indicator of good faith that the dynamic is going to be different," Kerry told reporters.
He added: "I'm open personally to exploring other avenues," maybe through China. "I'm not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted."