Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that he was “not going to close the door” on the possibility of direct talks with North Korea, a move that would fit into his stated mission to find new approaches to long-festering foreign policy problems.
Kerry offered his vision of those issues in a 40-minute interview with a small group of journalists in Tokyo at the end of a tour that took him virtually around the world to address some of the most pressing matters of the day.
On the grueling, nine-day journey, Kerry pledged support to Syrian opposition leaders, announced a path toward restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, issued a joint U.S.-China statement on climate change and consulted with partners in the talks on Iran’s nuclear program. The trip highlighted both Kerry’s ambitions and the obstacles he faces in tackling new and old foreign policy conundrums.
“If we’re going to start dealing effectively with rising levels of extremism in various parts of the world, we have to start showing some successes, and changing things for the better in some of these places where there are these kinds of tensions and conflicts,” Kerry said.
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At every stop, however, the threat of an imminent North Korean missile launch overshadowed other topics. A trip that began with tough talk from Washington in response to the shrill threats from Pyongyang ended with Kerry and other senior U.S. officials softening their rhetoric and pushing diplomacy over escalation even as they braced for news of a launch.
"We are prepared to reach out but we need an appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance," Kerry said.
One of Kerry’s biggest goals was to enlist Beijing as a tougher interlocutor with the North Koreans. While he didn’t get as enthusiastic a response as he’d wanted from the Chinese, the main supplier of food and fuel to Kim Jong Un’s regime, he said it was nevertheless significant that Chinese leaders, who typically steer clear of joint appearances with Western officials, stood side-by-side with him to emphasize their desire for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Kerry said he wouldn’t rule out either direct U.S. talks or back-channel negotiations via the Chinese, provided the North Koreans first show a commitment to dumping their controversial nuclear program.
“I’m not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted because of a kind of predetermined stubbornness or something,” Kerry said. “I think you have to keep your mind open.”
Kerry was more circumspect on the Middle East, where some welcomed his plans to try to restart long-dead peace talks and others mocked his attempt as a fool’s errand, given the hard-line stances of Israeli rulers and the deep internecine divisions on the Palestinian side.
Only days after visiting Ramallah and announcing plans for greater economic development in the West Bank, Kerry already was faced with a setback with the resignation of Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad, a trusted friend who’d been expected to help execute the plans.
Kerry said he’d prefer that Fayyad stay on but that he understands that the leader has health problems and family commitments that factored into his decision to step down. Kerry said he’ll continue to push his initiative to build West Bank leaders into stronger partners for negotiations. He added that only hours after his return to Washington he’ll discuss the plan over dinner with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special envoy to the Middle East of the so-called quartet – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
“We’re totally committed to moving forward with the economic thing, no matter what,” Kerry said, referring to a plan to press economic development in the West Bank. “The West Bank is there, Palestinian aspirations are there, the government is there, and in order to be a viable government, there’s got to be more than person that you can do business with.”
One of the biggest and bloodiest challenges Kerry faces is in Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime has turned into all-out civil war featuring Iranian-backed regime forces doing battle with a fractured rebel movement that’s increasingly reliant on al Qaida-linked fighters. Things are just as bleak with the political opposition, which for more than two years has failed to coalesce into a shadow government that’s poised to take charge should Assad’s government collapse.
Kerry said he was pleased with the progress he saw among the Syrian opposition leaders with whom he met in London, though he appeared reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse Ghassan Hitto, the new premier of a nascent temporary government. While the bloodshed on the ground is “unacceptable,” Kerry said, the situation remains so muddy that the Obama administration is proceeding with caution on calls for arming the rebels until there’s a better understanding of how unified and capable Syrian opposition leaders can be as interim leaders.
“How committed will they be to a post-Assad government that will be protective of minorities, and diverse and democratic and embrace all of the people of Syria?” Kerry said. “There are a lot of questions that need to get answered before you go crashing in.”