Kerry heads to SKorea, China, Indonesia to ease tensions on 5th trip to Asia in a year

Associated Press + More

By MATTHEW LEE, AP Diplomatic Writer

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry was heading to Asia on Wednesday on a mission aimed largely at easing tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over territorial disputes and exploring ways to restart long-stalled talks on ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons.

On his fifth trip to Asia as America's top diplomat, Kerry will be visiting South Korea, China and Indonesia, where officials traveling with him said he will be making the case for reducing regional acrimony over competing claims in the East and South China seas. At his first stop in Seoul, Kerry will also be expressing deep concern about a recent spike in tensions between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, the officials said. Japan is not on Kerry's itinerary but Kerry made the same point with Japan's foreign minister last week in Washington, the officials noted.

Tensions between Seoul and Tokyo "serve nobody's interests," one senior official told reporters aboard Kerry's plane. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issues publicly.

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.

Kerry will arrive in Seoul on Thursday, a day after senior North and South Korean officials hold their highest-level talks in years, but as the North continues to complain about upcoming U.S.-South Korean military exercises. North Korea has cited those exercises 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 suggested that they may cancel planned upcoming reunions between families separated by the Korean War.

From South Korea, Kerry will be seeking details of the inter-Korean talks, their thoughts on how to improve relations with Japan and ways to accelerate cooperation between Washington, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo on bringing North Korea back to the nuclear negotiating table, the officials said.

Kerry will bring a similar message on North Korea to senior Chinese officials when he visits Beijing on Friday, the officials said. The goal, the U.S. officials said, is to get China to use its influence with its ally North Korea to turn the word "denuclearization" from a noun to a verb. The officials said Kerry wants to make a resumption in the so-called six-party talks on North Korea a priority but stressed that Pyongyang's interest in that remains unclear, particularly in the wake of a recent purge in the North's top leadership.

But to get back to talks, the officials said North Korea would have to be ready to make significant concessions.

"The days are long gone when the international community will take North Korea's IOU," one official said.

Of potentially greater immediate concern, Kerry will implore Chinese authorities to end and roll back a series of increasingly assertive steps in the East and South China seas, the officials said.

"It is unwise in the extreme for China to take actions that are destructive of stability on the region," said one official traveling with Kerry.