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.
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