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However, the official also said that while U.S. authorities have been watching closely for signs that a Musudan missile is being prepared in North Korea, “we haven’t seen any indication that there’s going to be an imminent launch.”

“We’ve seen a lot of increasing rhetoric, but let me characterize that rhetoric that it always has a condition to it. It’s like, ‘If the United States would do this, then we will do this,’” the official added. “I think that’s very, very important.”

The official stressed that U.S. authorities “have seen no indication of massive troop movements or troops massing on the border, or massive exercises or anything like that, that would back up any of the rhetoric that has been going on.”

Beneath the rhetoric, life is carrying on normally in Seoul and at U.S. and South Korean military installations on the border with the North, the official said. “The tensions around the world are much more than they are here” in South Korea.

Between Seoul and Beijing

Mr. Kerry also used his brief visit to Seoul to express deep U.S. solidarity with South Korea, asserting that it is “safe to say that over the last 60 years we’ve built one of the strongest partnerships on the planet.”

He acknowledged the apparent eagerness of newly-elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye to use whatever means necessary to tamp down the current tensions and get North Korea back to the negotiating table with Seoul and the rest of the international community.

“President Park of the Republic of Korea articulated to me this afternoon a bright vision, a vision of big possibilities, a vision of the potential of a non-nuclear peninsula in which the people’s needs are being met and ultimately the aspirations of Koreans are met by the possibility of reunification” between South and North Korea, Mr. Kerry said.

It remains to seen how eager other major powers in Asia — China in particular — will be to embrace such aspirations.

While Mr. Kerry met privately with Mrs. Park, he suggested the true depth of the Obama administration’s effort to rein in North Korea won’t come until full focus until Saturday, when he is slated to hold talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing.

“No country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on [North Korea] than China,” Mr. Kerry said. “China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here and I hope that in our conversations when I get there tomorrow we’ll be able to lay out a path ahead that can defuse this tension.”

Optimistic as that may be, there were signs Friday that U.S. officials are still struggling to make sense of China’s posture toward the Korean situation, especially now that a fresh slate of leaders are breaking ground in Beijing under newly-named Chinese President Xi Jingping.

“I think that China would like to maintain the status quo as it is right now,” said the U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in reference to Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang.

North Korea “frankly does provide a buffer” between Chinese military forces and U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea, the official said. “But at the same time, I think China is struggling with the actions of [North Korea] and trying to figure out a way that they may be able to influence them.”