US secretary of state, John Kerry, has arrived in South Korea as tension with its northern neighbour continues, in a three-day visit, which began on Friday, and will also take him to China and Tokyo.
The trip comes as Washington tries to press China to deliver a “tough” message to North Korea to rein in its nuclear programme and belligerent rhetoric, a US official said.
“We really want them to … carry some tough messages to Pyongyang” on denuclearisation, the official told reporters travelling with Kerry.
Kerry also wanted to convey an unambiguous message in Seoul and Tokyo that “we are prepared and that alliance matters [and] that we will defend them,” the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, added.
The trip is Kerry’s first to the region since succeeding Hilary Clinton as secretary of state on February 1 and he hopes to persuade China to use its economic and diplomatic leverage to try to temper North Korea’s behaviour.
While in Seoul, Kerry is expected to meet South Korea’s foreign minister and discuss the tensions. He is also expected to visit the US troops as the joint military drills between US and South Korea nears conclusion. It ends at the end of April.
North Korea carried out its third nuclear test in February, prompting a fresh UN Security Council sanctions resolution against the impoverished state led by Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of its founder.
Earlier, Barack Obama, the US president, on Thursday called on North Korea to end its “belligerent approach”, as the Pentagon backed away from an intelligence report which suggested North Korea might have developed nuclear weapons which could be fit onto a ballistic missile.
According to Pentagon spokesman George Little, “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in” the intelligence report.
A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the AFP news agency that the administration had not changed its evaluation that Pyongyang was still not at a point where it could deliver a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
“The North Koreans have never demonstrated this capability and we don’t believe they are able to now,” the official said.
The confusion over the report came against the backdrop of mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang issuing bellicose threats and preparing to possibly launch medium-range missiles.
The Pentagon, which has bolstered missile defences around the Korean peninsula, said it was closely watching North Korea amid speculation the regime would fire conventional missiles in the run-up to national celebrations on April 15th.
“The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear program and calls upon North Korea to honour its international obligations,” Little said.