TOKYO — After meeting with Japanese leaders Sunday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry signaled that the U.S. is prepared to engage in talks with North Korea if it moves toward abandoning its nuclear program.
During an intimate question-and-answer session Sunday night with reporters traveling through Asia with him, Mr. Kerry said the United States is “prepared to reach out” to 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but doing so would require the “appropriate moment” and “appropriate circumstances.”
Although there was no immediate North Korean response, Mr. Kerry made the remarks as he headed into the homestretch of a trip that included stops in South Korea and China. His first tour through Asia as secretary of state was dominated by efforts to ease tensions surrounding antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats from North Korea.
Mr. Kerry, who met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday and Chinese President Xi Jingping on Saturday, is slated to hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.
“We maintain that the issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation,” Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said Saturday evening in Beijing while sitting beside Mr. Kerry at a pavilion in the Chinese capital.
The Chinese statement was nothing new, but Mr. Kerry said Sunday night that it was a “big deal because of the way they did it.”
“They don’t normally do joint press [statements],” Mr. Kerry said. “They went out of their way to make it clear that the denuclearization remains their policy. And I think a great big country and a great power like China, I think in the end, is not going to want to have a feckless policy.”
The Obama administration had hoped Mr. Kerry could persuade China to take a more active role in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and tone down its rhetoric about launching nuclear attacks on the U.S. and its regional allies.
While Chinese authorities took care to avoid specific public commitments to use that leverage against North Korea, Mr. Yang said broadly that China is committed to “advancing the denuclearization process on the peninsula.”
In appearing with Mr. Kerry, Mr. Yang said China remains committed to goals set out in the Sept. 19, 2005, joint statement of the six-party talks, which asserted outright that North Korea had “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
It remains to be seen how North Korea will react to Mr. Kerry’s overture and China’s latest words. But regional analysts suggested ahead of the Kerry visit that Kim Jong-un might test-launch a missile Monday on the birthday of his grandfather, regime founder Kim Il-sung.
There was no word of a launch Monday morning. Past tests generally have happened early in the day.
Mr. Kerry later told reporters traveling with him that a resumption of six-party talks would require North Koreans “to indicate their willingness to move toward denuclearization and come into compliance with the international standards” they’d agreed to.
He declined to specify what steps North Koreans would have to take, beyond saying that “they have to take some actions,” the extent of which he would discuss “with folks back in Washington.”
The secretary of state did say the Obama administration was open to possible “back channel” talks with North Korea but that he could not — and should not — elaborate on them.
“There are certain channels that we can reach out to,” Mr. Kerry said. “I’m not going to say that we have or haven’t at this point in time.”
“We are certainly always prepared to avail ourselves of them,” he said, adding that he “grew up in an age when I watched what happened with President Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis where war was averted because people were willing to keep the back channel open and be creative.”
“We now celebrate it, but if it had been advertised ahead of time it probably would have been vilified and possibly even prevented.”