US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday warned Kim Jong-un’s government against trying to derail upcoming South Korea-US military drills and stressed that America would never accept the North as a nuclear state, as satellite photos emerged of excavation work in a North Korean nuclear site.
Kerry, who was in Seoul to discuss North Korea’s nuclear programme at the start of an Asia tour, said the United States would not be drawn into “talks for talks’ sake” with Pyongyang.
“We’ve been through that exercise previously, we want to know that this is real,” he said, adding North Korea had to take “meaningful action” towards denuclearisation before a dialogue could begin.
At the same time, he voiced full support for South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s efforts to build trust with the North, and welcomed a recent diplomatic initiative that saw the rival Koreas meet on Wednesday for their highest-level talks in seven years – a development that Kerry welcomed.
A second round of discussions took place on Friday, with North Korea pushing the South to postpone its annual military exercises with the US until after a planned reunion from February 20-25 of family members separated by the Korean war.
The drills are slated to begin on February 24 and Seoul is refusing to consider a postponement – a stance that Kerry made clear had Washington’s backing.
Watch: Kerry's warnings to the North
Kerry said the reunion was a purely humanitarian issue and there was “no legitimate excuse” for linking it to the military exercises that take place every year.
North Korea should act out of “human decency” and not try and use “one [issue] as an excuse to somehow condition the other”, he added.
Last year’s joint exercises fuelled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.
North Korea views the drills as a rehearsal for invasion, and has repeatedly demanded their permanent cancellation.
The United States has around 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
Under its defence agreement with Washington, South Korea is protected by the US nuclear umbrella and the United States would assume overall operational command of joint US and South Korean forces if a full-scale war with the North broke out.
Recent satellite imagery suggests North Korea has stepped up excavation work at its main nuclear test site, but there are no signs of an imminent test, a US think tank said on Friday.
The images indicate a “significant acceleration in excavation activity” at the remote Punggye-ri test site in the northeast, said the closely-followed 38 North website of the Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute.
The debris excavated from a new tunnel at the site appears to have doubled in little over a month since last viewed in December, the institute said.
The purpose of the excavation was unclear, it said, adding that Pyongyang was unlikely to use this tunnel for its next test since two other tunnels at the site already appear complete.
Visible indications of an imminent test – camouflage netting, special vehicles – can usually be detected four to six weeks in advance.
Based on the most recent imagery, “there are no signs that a test is in preparation,” the analysis concluded.
North Korea staged its third – and most powerful – nuclear test in February last year after two previous tests in 2006 and 2009.
Two months later, it boasted that it would restart its five megawatt reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear compound – the source of weapons-grade plutonium for its previous tests.
Pyongyang’s current stockpile of fissile material is variously estimated as being enough for six to 10 bombs.
38 North said in December that satellite images suggested North Korea was following through on “wide-ranging, extensive” efforts to fully reactivate its Yongbyon facilities.
China’s unique and critical role
Kerry’s Asia tour took him on Friday to China, North Korea’s only major ally, where he indicated he would push Beijing to do more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
“China has a unique and critical role it can play … and no country has a greater potential to influence North Korea,” he said, praising moves by Beijing last year to help reduce tensions after Pyongyang carried out another nuclear test.
Kerry’s visit comes ahead of an Asia tour in April by US President Barack Obama, which will take in Japan and South Korea, the two main US military allies in the region.
Ties between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest ebb for many years, causing concern in Washington which feels the three allies must maintain a united front, particularly on the issue of North Korea.
Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula remains a hugely emotive issue in South Korea, which feels successive Japanese governments have failed to apologise properly or atone for abuses during the period. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial war shrine in December was angrily denounced by Seoul.
Kerry urged both countries to try and put the past “history behind them,” saying it was “critical” to maintain “robust trilateral cooperation”.
But South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se reiterated that Japan must “take appropriate measures to improve the situation.”
President Park came to office a year ago promising greater engagement with Pyongyang, and Wednesday’s talks had raised hopes the two sides might be ready to embark on a genuine trust-building dialogue.
But South Korea remains wary of the impoverished North’s intentions, suggesting that its only real desire is to see the resumption of several lucrative cross-border projects.