Kerry vows US support for SKorea, urges better ties with Japan

The Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, looks at South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, right, delivering a speech Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Seoul, South Korea. Kerry is visiting South Korea, China, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates on a seven-day trip. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, Pool)

Associated Press + More

By MATTHEW LEE, AP Diplomatic Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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.