SEOUL — Secretary of State John F. Kerry strongly admonished North Korea on Friday for threatening to attack U.S. allies and interests, but also downplayed reports that Pyongyang has developed a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on the head of a ballistic missile.
Arriving here in the South Korean capital at the start of a three-nation Asian tour, Mr. Kerry said that North Korean leaders have in the past "conducted a nuclear test, so there is some kind of device."
"But that is very different from miniaturization and delivery," he said, in reference to the secretive and controversial process of actually condensing nuclear material down to the point at which it can be used on a ballistic missile.
Mr. Kerry appeared to take issue with alarming reports that swirled through the English-language media Thursday after Republican House member in Washington claimed that a recent assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had found with "moderate confidence" that North Korea "has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles."
Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday that the unclassified version of a March DIA report had also predicted that the "reliability" of North Korea's nuclear weapons "will be low."
But Mr. Kerry told reporters in Seoul on Friday that it is "inaccurate to suggest that [North Korea] has tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in [the DIA] report," he said. "We do not operate under the assumption that they have that fully tested, available capacity."
"This is the Pentagon's assessment that I am giving you," Mr. Kerry said.
Debate over the extent to which North Korea may or may not be able back up on its threats to carry out a nuclear attack on the United States has occurred mainly outside the media spotlight surrounding the recent escalation of tensions here.
But Mr. Kerry said Friday that the recent wave of "rhetoric we are hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard."
The international community is united, he said, in the "fact that North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power."
Regional analysts suggest 28-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be preparing to test launch a "Musudan" missile, believed to have a range of roughly 2,000 miles, on April 15 in conjunction with birthday celebrations for his grandfather — and regime founder — Kim Il Sung.
"If Kim Jong-un decides to launch a missile, whether it's across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community, his own obligations that he has accepted and it will be a provocative and unwanted act that will raise people's temperature with respect to this issue," Mr. Kerry said in Seoul.
Examining the threat
A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said a sudden missile launch might give "some sort of off-ramp" to Mr. Kim in that it would open a "way for him to back away from his current rhetoric and save face" among North Korean military leaders and elites perceived to be questioning the young leader's power.
A launch, the official said, would allow Kim Jong-un to say: "'I've stood up to the United States, I launched a missile, we did this and now I can safely come back to my people and say, "I am the great leader, I am like my grandfather, I'm like my father and I have a strong hold on our defense."'"
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."
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