The Cable

As senator, Kerry called for direct talks with North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry isn't calling for direct talks with North Korea today, but that's what he advocated when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Standing beside South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Seoul Friday, Kerry emphasized the resoluteness of the United States and its East Asian allies in refusing to accept North Korea's status as a nuclear-weapons state and urged the North Korean leadership to step back from its increasingly provocative and bellicose rhetoric. Kerry also said that if North Korea were to change its attitude, the United States and its allies would welcome a diplomatic path to peace.

"The rhetoric that we're hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard, and I am here to make it clear today, on behalf of President Obama and the citizens of the United States and our bilateral security agreement, that the United States will, if needed, defend our allies and defend ourselves," Kerry said Friday. "We want to emphasize that the real goal should not be reinforcing the fact that we will defend our allies, which we will, but it should be emphasizing for everybody the possibilities of peace, the possibilities of reunification, the possibilities of a very different future for the people of the Republic of Korea and ultimately for the DPRK."

In 2011, during a previous round of North Korean brinksmanship, Kerry was sitting in a different chair as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged with overseeing the Obama administration's North Korea policy. In that role, he called for an end to the status-quo policy of "strategic patience," which amounts to waiting for Pyongyang to change its behavior, and advocated direct U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks

"Let me be clear: We must get beyond the political talking point that engaging North Korea is somehow ‘rewarding bad behavior.' It is not. We will set the time and place and we will negotiate in good faith. Talks will be based on our national security interests and those of our allies," Kerry said at the opening of a March 1, 2011, hearing that featured testimony by then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and then Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Bosworth. "We don't know what renewed diplomatic engagement can accomplish. We do know this: Our silence invites a dangerous situation to get worse."."

There are no good options when dealing with North Korea, but that doesn't mean the U.S. government should use that as an excuse to do nothing or very little, Kerry argued. In fact, he said, not talking to North Korea contributed to its "dangerous and destabilizing conduct." He said the United States needed to "seize the initiative" and propose direct talks immediately.

"The risks of maintaining the status quo are grave. North Korea would likely build more nuclear weapons and missiles. It may well export nuclear technology or even fissile material. And the next violation of the armistice could escalate into wider hostilities that threaten U.S. allies and interests," he said. "Given these very real risks, the best option is to consult closely with South Korea and launch bilateral talks with North Korea when we decide the time is appropriate. Fruitful talks between the U.S. and North Korea can lay the groundwork for resumption of the Six Party Talks. Right now, we simply cannot afford to cede the initiative to North Korea and China because neither country's interests fully coincide with ours."

At the time, North Korea had recently sunk a South Korea vessel, killing 46 South Korean sailors, and shelled a South Korean island near disputed waters. Kerry said the current policy wasn't working.

"Last year was the most dangerous on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. We must do everything within our power to avoid further deterioration and put the peninsula back on a path to peace and stability," he said. "So far, international initiatives have not stabilized the situation, much less brought about a change of course in the North."

The Obama administration did engage North Korea in a series of meetings in 2011 and 2012, eventually working out a deal that would have sent North Korea hundreds of thousands of pounds of food in conjunction with North Korean promises related to its missile and nuclear programs. That deal fell apart when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the deal was to be announced.

Little is known about the motivations of the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and there have been some meetings between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, mostly in New York, but those meetings are largely perfunctory and are used to communicate existing positions. The State Department is reticent even to acknowledge the existence of its rare instances of engagement with Pyongyang

"We need to find a way to break North Korea's cycle of provocation and nuclear expansion. We need to find the right American policy, in concert with South Korea and Japan, to persuade the North to abandon its reckless behavior," Kerry said.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The Cable

Kerry’s Mideast shuttle diplomacy just beginning

Secretary of State John Kerry may not have scored a diplomatic coup during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, but America's top diplomat is just beginning what will but a long push to restart the peace process, according to sources and experts.

Kerry traveled to the region for the third time in two months this week and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. After Kerry left town, Israeli newspapers published a series of anonymous quotes from senior Israeli officials stating that Israeli had rejected Kerry's proposals for using confidence-building measures as a pathway to a resumption of direct talks.

"I believe that if we can get on a track where people are working in good faith to address the bottom-line concerns, it is possible to be able to make progress and make peace," Kerry told staff at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

The range of reported confidence-building measures that Kerry is seeking from the Israelis is long, and could include concessions related to economic development in the West Bank, the transfer of control over parts of what's known as Area C near the Dead Sea to the Palestinians, or the release of some Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. The Israeli media has  also reported that Kerry is trying to restart talks on the issues of borders and security first, leaving issues like the right of return for later.

"Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation," a senior Israeli official told Haaretz. "He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory ... and that is wrong."

But multiple sources told The Cable that Kerry's discussions with both parties were not so specific as to seek commitment to any particular confidence-building measures; Kerry at this stage is simply seeking Israeli buy-in to the concept of confidence-building measures as a step toward talks. But the anonymous Israeli official seemed to reject this construct as well.

"If negotiations are renewed, we will be willing to perform many gestures and steps, but they will take place as part of a process that is already underway," the official said.

Former Rep. Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that the Israeli officials bashing Kerry on background are simply posturing ahead of what will be a protracted process that will play out over several months, if not years.

"I don't think that Secretary Kerry or the administration was rebuked. I think the Israelis are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership and the Palestinians are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Israeli leadership and Secretary Kerry is in the middle," he said. "Invariably both sides will take exception to what Secretary Kerry is trying to promote and achieve. That's normal. That might be a necessary first step, what occurred this week. Not a pleasant one but a necessary one to allow Kerry to get to step two with both parties and achieve a more positive result."

Kerry and his inner circle, which includes the heavy influence of senior Middle East advisor Frank Lowenstein, are not naïve about the difficulty of the new peace process initiative they are proposing, Wexler said. They are taking a long view and are planning several more visits by Kerry to the region -- the kind of shuttle diplomacy that was taken on by special envoys in past situations.

"The way I see it, you have a secretary of state who earnestly and for all of the right reasons is trying to make sense out of a very messy situation and he is trying to infuse rationality and a degree of trust into a dynamic which is poisoned with too much irrationality and distrust," Wexler said. "It's a monumental task that Secretary Kerry is taking on... there will be continuous setbacks and he knows that."

The advantages of having the secretary of state handle the diplomacy personally outweigh the disadvantages, Wexler argued, which include distracting Kerry from other matters around the world and placing the new secretary's credibility on the line very early on in the process.

The Obama administration needs to prove to both sides that it is committed to this new peace push in order to pressure both sides to dislodge themselves from their positions of inertia, Wexler said.

"Both parties are now seeking to ascertain is how persistent is the administration going to be? How much skin is Kerry and Obama prepared to put in the game?" Wexler said. "If both sides perceive that both Kerry and Obama are willing to bleed some, then the parties will become more accommodating."

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians can be expected to resist Kerry's initiative in the press because they are both posturing ahead of a possible direct negotiation, according to Wexler.

"For the time being, their strategy will be not to agree with what Secretary Kerry is promoting," he said. "Kerry's team is developing a 2, 3, 4 year strategy, because they understand all the obstacles that will be presented. This is the only reasonable course that has any likelihood of success and that's a reflection of the dire situation that we're in."

Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images