U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart warned North Korea on Thursday against any possible aggression as the North sent mixed signals over whether it would return to denuclearization talks and improve ties with the South.
Kerry, meanwhile, urged South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, to repair deep divisions between them that threaten to jeopardize a coordinated approach to North Korea.
Kerry and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se each dismissed demands from the North to halt an upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise. They said North Korea could not use the exercise as an excuse to stay away from talks or to delay attempts to improve ties, with steps like reuniting families separated by the Korean War.
"We have yet to see evidence that North Korea is prepared to meet its obligations. Let me be clear; the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not accept talks for the sake of talks, and the DPRK must show that it will live up to its commitments," Kerry said, referring to the North by the acronym for its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The U.S. is "ready and able to deter North Korean aggression," he said. "It is time for the North to choose the path of peace and refrain from provocations or using excuses to avoid the responsibility that they bear."
Yun said that both Seoul and Washington "stand fully prepared against any potential situation given the mixed signals from North Korea, even as it continues a charm offensive."
The pair appeared at a joint news conference in Seoul the day after senior North and South Korean officials held their highest-level talks in years, but as the North continued to complain about the military exercise.
North Korea has cited it as a reason to rescind an invitation to a U.S. diplomat to visit the country to discuss the case of jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae and has suggested it may cancel planned upcoming reunions between families separated by the Korean War. The rival Koreas agreed Thursday to hold another round of talks Friday.
Kerry planned to travel Friday to China and said he would press Chinese leaders to do more to bring North Korea back to disarmament talks. "There is more that China can do," he said.
Kerry also expressed concern about a recent downturn in relations between South Korea and Japan, saying the two nations must overcome historical animosity to present a united front in talks with North Korea and to better counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
"It is up to Japan and (South Korea) to put history behind them and move the relationship forward," Kerry said. "And it is critical at the same time that we maintain robust trilateral cooperation" on North Korea.
"We urge our friends in Japan and South Korea, we urge both of them to work with us together to find a way forward to help resolve the deeply felt historic differences that still have meaning today. ... We will continue to encourage both allies to find mutually acceptable approaches to legacy issues from the past."
South Korea was angry over a recent visit by Japan's prime minister to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo, which has deepened resentment in both of the neighboring countries over Japan's colonial past and abuses committed during World War II. Japan says it is willing to hold high-level dialogue to ease tension, but there appears to be little immediate prospect of that happening.
Yun said South Korea was ready to resolve the differences but accused Japanese political leaders of distorting the historical record and said rapprochement could not happen while that continued.
"We have made a lot of efforts to stabilize the relationship between Korea and Japan, but unfortunately, during the past few months, some Japanese political leaders have made a lot of historically incorrect remarks," Yun said. "And so these revisionist remarks, as long as they last, it will (make it) difficult to build trust between our countries. These leaders must look at history as it is and they must be sincere."
Kerry was in Seoul on the first leg of his fifth trip to Asia in the past year, to demonstrate the Obama administration's commitment to its stated priority of "rebalancing" U.S. foreign policy to Asia. He arrived in South Korea just hours after the White House announced that President Barack Obama would visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in the spring. In China, Kerry will raise longstanding U.S. concerns about Chinese behavior, according to officials traveling with him.
U.S. diplomats have cited a litany of actions that China has taken recently that affect what they say is American national interest in freedom of navigation and maritime safety in the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea that are dotted with reefs and islands subject to multiple disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Those have included restricting access to a contested reef and imposing fishing regulations in disputed waters. The U.S. has also warned China that it should not declare an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, over any part of the South China Sea.
A declared Chinese ADIZ over contested areas in the East China Sea has already drawn harsh criticism from the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S. has been urging China and the Association of South East Asian Nations to agree to a binding code of conduct for behavior in the South China Sea for years.
China has been reluctant to negotiate with ASEAN as a whole, and has fiercely rejected U.S. allegations that it is using vague territorial claims to gradually assert control over the disputed areas. On Saturday, China's foreign ministry said in a statement that some U.S. officials' remarks were not constructive and opined that "playing up tensions" was not conducive to maintaining peace and stability.
After visiting Beijing, Kerry will raise the code of conduct issue again in Indonesia when he meets with the ASEAN secretary general at the bloc's headquarters in Jakarta.