North Korea has warned Americans to leave South Korea in order to avoid a looming "thermonuclear war," but the State Department said Tuesday it sees no reason for Americans abroad to heed Pyongyang's warning.
In a special bulletin on a state-run television channel subsequently reported by North Korea's KCNA news agency, the regime in Pyongyang said there will be "an all-out war, a merciless, sacred, retaliatory war to be waged by [North Korea]."
"[The North Korean government] does not want to see foreigners in South Korea fall victim to the war," KCNA reported the bulletin as saying, adding that the government "informs all foreign institutions and enterprises and foreigners, including tourists ... that they are requested to take measures for shelter and evacuation in advance for their safety."
The warning follows North Korea's previous warning to foreign diplomats in Pyongyang, urging them to evacuate their diplomatic posts out of concern for their own safety.
The State Department last updated its official travel advisory for South Korea on April 4, before the latest warning from Pyongyang.
"The U.S. Embassy informs U.S. citizens that despite current political tensions with North Korea there is no specific information to suggest there are imminent threats to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea (ROK)," the April 4 advisory said. "The Embassy has not changed its security posture and we have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in, or plan to visit, the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, reporters asked Spokesman Patrick Ventrell whether Pyongyang's latest threat to Americans in South Korea would lead to any change in the State Department's advice to American citizens there. Ventrell said it would not.
"We have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in or plan to visit the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time," Ventrell said.
Reporters pressed Ventrell to acknowledge that the U.S. government thinks North Korea is just bluffing and has no intention of attacking the South.
"So the fact that a nuclear-armed country has told foreigners to get out of South Korea because of a coming war, you don't regard as a specific threat?" asked AP reporter Matt Lee. "In another circumstance if a country warned Americans or any other foreigners to get out, you might think that that was an actual threat. No?"
Ventrell said that North Korea has a pattern of making such provocative statements and he insisted the U.S. government was taking Pyongyang's statements seriously, but said that at the same time, Americans should feel free to travel to South Korea as they please.
"Our analysis remains the same as it was last week: that we're not discouraging U.S. citizens from traveling to South Korea or encouraging them to take any special travel precautions," he said.
"And you don't think that that might be irresponsible in light of the situation?" Lee pressed.
"Well, if we thought otherwise, we'd have a different recommendation, but that's our recommendation," Ventrell responded. "Look, we're clear-eyed about the threat."
"Right, you just don't buy it," Lee shot back.
A top State Department official met with a top representative of the North Korean government in New York in March, The Cable has learned.
Clifford Hart, the State Department's special envoy to the now-defunct six-party talks, met North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations Han Song-ryol in mid-March, just before North Korea began its latest string of provocative statements and actions, diplomatic sources said. The meeting was done through what's known in diplomatic circles as the "New York channel," the most common method of direct communication between Washington and Pyongyang.
No real progress was made during the meeting and no new offers were made by the U.S. officials present, the sources said. The U.S. side simply reiterated the administration's call for North Korea to avoid provocative actions as well as its offer for a return to diplomacy if North Korea recommitted to fulfilling its international obligations and pursuing a path of denuclearization. The North Korean side simply agreed to communicate that information back to Pyongyang.
For outside experts critical of the Obama administration's current approach to North Korea, which is based on the principle of "strategic patience," or waiting for Pyongyang to change its calculus and rejoin multilateral talks, the meeting is only the latest indication that the administration's policy is stagnant.
"Unfortunately, the New York channel, which in the past was an important communications link between Pyongyang and Washington, appears to have become a place where boilerplate talking points are exchanged," former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit told The Cable. "It's especially disappointing given the ongoing crisis which puts a premium on candid communication to avoid misunderstanding and to find a diplomatic off-ramp from the current tense situation."
Most recently, the New York channel was used to warn the State Department just before North Korea tested a nuclear bomb for the third time in February. North Korea is expected to test a medium-range ballistic missile as early as Wednesday and another warning could come to the Obama administration via North Korea's representative office at the U.N.
A former U.S. official who worked on North Korea in past administrations described how the New York channel works in an interview with The Cable just after the last nuclear test.
"It's been the main channel of communication between the North Korean government and the U.S. government. We don't have any other channels we use," the official said.
Han, the main official who runs the New York channel, also represented North Korea at two unofficial meetings with U.S. interlocutors in 2012 that were reported by The Cable, one in Singapore and one in Dalian, China. Hart attended the Dalian meeting.
The State Department declined to comment on the March New York meeting, in keeping with its past reticence to discuss the New York channel.
"They're afraid of their shadows," the former official said. "It's like ‘No one can know we are actually communicating with these people because they are bad.'"
Secretary of State John Kerry will visit China, South Korea, and Japan later this week. A senior administration told CNN that Kerry will try to present a diplomatic path out of the crisis during his trip.
At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell declined to say whether there have been any communications with Pyongyang through the New York channel since March.
"Well, you know we have a channel of communications. I don't have anything specifically to read out about that. But the channel remains open as necessary," he said.
Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar has opened up a new policy organization in Washington, D.C., focused on non-proliferation, food security, and foreign-aid reform.
Several former Lugar Senate staffers have come together to make the Lugar Center a reality. Lugar spoke about his new project Tuesday in an interview with The Cable.
"The idea of the Lugar Center is that we would have a nonprofit organization devoted to finding solutions and proposing new policies on issues that I have worked on for decades," Lugar said. "Our idea is that we will operate with the goal of trying to build bridges across the tough divide in our current political scene."
The center will employ full-time policy experts to formulate proposals and communicate them to policymakers both in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. The center will also place fellows and interns in congressional offices to help push Lugar's work forward.
"We want create opportunities for consensus-building and get the word out," Lugar said.
The center's work also dovetails nicely with Lugar's new academic projects, which include new ties to both the University of Indianapolis and Indiana University, where Lugar is teaching and co-chairing an advisory committee with former Rep. Lee Hamilton.
The center's work will be avowedly bipartisan, Lugar said.
"When I was in the Senate I was able to make an appeal successful year by year to enhance the intensity of the non-proliferation programs. The national interest impelled that people think about this. I think it will be a similar case with world food problems," he said.
Along those lines, Lugar will be making a speech Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University and introducing USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah at a Wednesday event on food assistance at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Shah is about to roll out a new proposal that would transition U.S. food assistance away from American farmers under the Food For Peace program and toward local procurement of food aid abroad.
Lugar supports this initiative.
"Food for Peace was created to try to help out the American agricultural scene by making certain there were markets for our farmers and jobs for people in the transportations and shipping industry. Some of that may from time to time still be required," Lugar said. "But Raj Shah will outline a situation where a majority of the food supplies will be purchases on site and delivered there and that is a step forward in terms of the humanitarian effort and the efficiency of the project.'
In his Georgetown speech, Lugar will emphasize the need for bipartisanship even at the cost of political advantage, something Lugar knows about all too well.
"I would define true bipartisanship as the suspension of the pursuit of political advantage in the interest of doing something necessary for our country," Lugar will say, according to prepared remarks. "Implicitly, it assumes that there are times when politics have to be subordinated to policy objectives. True bipartisan leaders take electoral risks in the interests of good governance."
If North Korea fires off a missile in the coming days, the United States should use its missile defenses to shoot it down, even if it's not headed for a real target, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable.
The Obama administration has been moving missile defense related assets closer to North Korea recently and has plans to shoot down a North Korean missile headed for Japan, South Korea, or Guam, according to the New York Times, but not if the missile is just going to fall into the water.
McCain begs to differ.
"If they launched a missile, we should take it out. It's best to show them what some of our capabilities are," he said. "Their missile would most likely miss, but the fact that they have the ability to launch one with that range is very escalatory at least."
Asked if a failure of U.S. missile defenses in such a scenario would be harmful to the credibility of U.S. weapons systems, McCain said, "That's true, but I would hope that would be a minimal risk."
South Korean officials have been predicting that North Korea could launch a medium-range ballistic missile on or about April 10, just ahead of the April 15 birthday of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung. Last year, North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket with a satellite attached on April 12, scuttling its ongoing diplomacy with the Obama administration.
North Korea's missile-launch preparations are ongoing, but South Korean officials on Monday walked back comments from over the weekend warning that North Korea is preparing a fourth nuclear device test. Meanwhile, the Times reported that the United States and South Korea have prepared a new "counterprovocation" plan that would allow for proportional retaliatory strikes if North Korea conducted a limited military strike on the South.
Secretary of State John Kerry will visit China, South Korea, and Japan later this week. A senior administration told CNN that Kerry will try to present a diplomatic path out of the crisis during his trip.
"Secretary Kerry agrees that we have to have a robust deterrent because we really don't know what these guys will do," the official said. "But he also knows that the North Koreans need a diplomatic off-ramp and that they have to be able to see it."
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will visit Beijing next week and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is scheduled to travel to China in May.
McCain said the key to solving the North Korean crisis in the short term is held by the Chinese, who although they have made increasingly sharp statements and have been conducting military exercises near their border with North Korea, have yet to use whatever leverage they have on Pyongyang.
"The Chinese are the only ones who have real influence over the North Koreans and they could take action that would ratchet down this crisis dramatically and they are not doing that," McCain said. "China could shut down their whole economy in a short period of time... It's symptomatic of Chinese behavior... They are not behaving appropriate to a world power."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top professional staffer on arms trade issues is leaving Capitol Hill to take up a position in the State Department, The Cable has learned.
Greg Kausner is moving over to the State Department's Political-Military Bureau to become the new deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security and arms transfers, he told friends in an e-mail obtained by The Cable. A former naval aviator, Kausner traveled with Kerry when he worked at the Senate Navy Liaison office and then Kerry hired him to work on the SFRC staff. His last day on the Hill was April 5.
We're also hearing from multiple sources that SFRC nuclear and non-proliferation expert Anthony Wier is headed over to State in the coming weeks to work on nuclear issues, but Wier did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department declined a request for comment and SFRC Spokeswoman Tricia Enright said only that a replacement for Kausner has not yet been hired.
Kausner will be working for Assistant Secretary Andrew Shapiro, a former Senate staffer for Hillary Clinton. Shapiro is departing Foggy Bottom soon; he's one of the few "Hillaryland" officials left in Foggy Bottom.
There are still several former Kerry employees waiting on Capitol Hill to see if they will get jobs at State. So far, Kerry has brought only a handful of his own people to the State Department and several other top jobs have been filled by White House, Obama campaign, or outside personnel.
There are signs, however, that the State Department may be moving forward on filling some of the scores of vacant mid- and senior-level positions around the department. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland announced April 5 that she will no longer be conducting the daily briefings, perhaps to prepare for her expected appointment as assistant secretary of state for Europe.
Hundreds of veterans of various special operations units joined together Monday to call on Congress to create a special committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benhgazi.
"The undersigned are a representative group of some 700 retired Military Special Operations professionals who spent the majority of their careers preparing for and executing myriad operations to rescue or recover detained or threatened fellow Americans," reads a letter organized by Special Operations Speaks, a group of special ops vets formed during last year's presidential campaign.The group spent over $1 million in ads and public events last year opposing the reelection of Barack Obama.
"In fact, many of us participated in both the Vietnam era POW rescue effort, The Son Tay Raid, as well as Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue attempt in April of 1980 in Iran, so we have been at this for many years and have a deep passion for seeking the truth about what happened during the national tragedy in Benghazi," the letter continues.
The open letter was addressed to all members of Congress and calls for them to support H.R. 36, a bill that would create a House Select Committee on the Terrorist Attack in Benghazi. The bill was introduced in January by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and now has more than 60 co-sponsors.
According to the text of the bill, the committee if created would be required to investigate and report back to Congress within 90 days on a number of issues related to the attack, including: intelligence known to the U.S. relating to the attack , requests for additional security or actions taken to improve security at the mission before the attack, a definitive timeline of the attack, how the relevant agencies responded to the attack and whether appropriate congressional notifications were made, any improper conduct by officials relating to the attack, and recommendations on what steps Congress and the president should take to prevent future attacks.
The former special ops officers have their own list of questions for the potential committee to investigate, including why have the survivors of the attack not been questioned, where those survivors are, and what was the nature of Ambassador Chris Stevens' business in Benghazi at the time of the attack.
"This was the most severe attack on American diplomatic facilities and personnel since the attacks on the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Thus far, it appears that there has been no serious effort to determine critical details of this attack," the letter states. "This is inexcusable and demands immediate attention by the Congress. Congress must show some leadership and provide answers to the public as to what actually occurred in Benghazi. Americans have a right to demand a full accounting on this issue."
Last summer, The Cable reported that the group's founder, retired Navy SEAL Larry Bailey, believes President Barack Obama is a socialist, was raised by communists, and wasn't born in the United States. He also believes that the president is not actually the son of Barack Obama, Sr, favoring the conspiracy theory that the president is actually the love child of Ann Dunham and writer Frank Marshall Davis.
"I have to admit that I'm a Birther," Bailey said in an interview at the time. "If there were a jury of 12 good men and women and the evidence were placed before them, there would be absolutely no question Barack Obama was not born where he said he was and is not who he says he is."
The group has a Facebook page with more than 147,000 likes.
A State Department foreign-service officer was among the six Americans killed Saturday in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber who drove a car laden with explosives into a military convoy.
"Our State Department family is grieving over the loss of one of our own, an exceptional young Foreign Service Officer, killed today in an IED attack in Zabul province, along with service members, a Department of Defense civilian, and Afghan civilians," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a Saturday statement.
Four other State Department
personnel were injured, one critically, Kerry said. The officials along with a
group of Afghans were on their way to donate books to a school in the
provincial capital of Qalat when the attack occurred.
The State Department did not release the name of the foreign service officer killed but said that she had met Kerry during Kerry's trip to Kabul only last week.
"She was everything a Foreign Service Officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people," Kerry said. She tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future."
Three U.S. military personnel were killed in the attack, along with two U.S. civilians and one Afghan doctor. Another U.S. civilian was killed in a separate attack in eastern Afghanistan Saturday, the AP reported. A Taliban spokesman claimed credit for the attack in an interview with the AP.
Kerry has been in touch with the White House, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, his statement said. Kerry also spoke with the deceased foreign service officer's parents.
"We know too well the risks in the world today for all of our State Department personnel at home and around the world - Foreign Service, Civil Service, political appointees, locally employed staff and so many others," Kerry said. "Every day, we honor their courage and are grateful for their sacrifices, and today we do so with great sadness."
UPDATE: Speaking in Turkey Sunday, Kerry identified the foreign service officer as 25 year old Anne Smedinghoff.
The Chinese government has changed its approach to North Korea and taken a tougher line out of frustration with Pyongyang, according to Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia official until last month.
"The most important new ingredient [in the North Korea crisis] has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit. That they are going to have to be much clearer and much more direct with Pyongyang that what Pyongyang is doing is undermining Chinese security," Campbell told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies Thursday.
"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. You've seen it at the U.N., you've seen it in our private conversations ... I don't think that subtle shift can be lost on Pyongyang," he said. "It's not in their strategic interest to alienate every country that surrounds them. I think they have succeeded in undermining their trust and confidence in Beijing."
In the latest apparent sign of Chinese discontent, Beijing recently rejected a North Korean request to send a diplomat envoy to Pyongyang, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday.
China has long considered North Korea a useful check against a united, pro-American Korean Peninsula. But Chinese frustration with Beijing could eventually lead to a more dramatic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would change the state of play in Northeast Asia, according to Campbell.
"It's very clear [to China]: If this is a buffer state, what is it good for?" he said.
The White House has promoted a careful dual message throughout this crisis: The United States takes North Korean provocations seriously but doesn't see North Korea's actual military moves as significant.
"They're doing that in a way so that we don't have a set of circumstances where things escalate beyond a point where it can be effectively managed," Campbell explained.
Meanwhile, there are feelers out that might pave the way for a conversation with North Korea that might provide a way out of the crisis.
"Subtle messages have been sent in every corner and in every venue that the door remains open to dialogue," Campbell said. "We have to be prepared to be open to dialogue."
Campbell also revealed that there is one senior administration who prefers the term "pivot" rather than "rebalance" to describe the shift in U.S. attention toward Asia -- President Barack Obama.
Campbell said the initial use of the term "pivot" was later replaced with the term "rebalance" because some misinterpreted the word "pivot" to mean a turn away from Europe, which was not intended as part of the policy.
"I actually think the better terminology is ‘rebalance,'" Campbell said. "And of course, initially the response was very clear from the NSS [National Security Staff in the White House] that really the term that is appropriate is ‘rebalance,' so those of us who use ‘pivot' were sent to reeducation camps and works in the fields."
But White House aides' effort to erase the use of the word "pivot" was ultimately thwarted by their own boss -- Obama.
"The irony of this, after all of this reeducation, it turns out: Who is the person who actually likes the term and the concept of the pivot?" Campbell said. "The president of the United States."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.