STATE DEPARTMENT— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Wednesday for South Korea and China, where he will meet with officials about containing North Korea's nuclear program. The Obama administration also is working to secure the release of U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae, who is being held in a North Korean labor camp.
U.S. officials continue to push North Korea to release Kenneth Bae, an American missionary. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. If China can help with that release, Secretary Kerry is willing to try, said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
"Of course the Chinese enjoy a special relationship with the North Korean government that has proved helpful in pushing some of our mutual goals, whether its denuclearization of the peninsula, getting North Korea to stop taking provocative actions. Certainly if there could be a role, I'm sure we would be happy to have that conversation," said Harf.
The standoff shows that Washington knows little about what's going on in Pyongyang, especially since the rise of Kim Jong Un, said American University professor Lou Goodman.
"I don't think there's real knowledge about what the agenda is of this new regime, how they see themselves. There isn't knowledge about who has contacts, who doesn't have contacts," said Goodman.
China, as North Korea's principal contact, is working to improve dialogue with Pyongyang, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
"The overall situation on the Korean peninsula at present is quite fragile. We hope all sides can exercise restraint and not take steps to provoke each other," said Lei.
However, the United States should not count on China for a breakthrough with North Korea, said American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin.
"The U.S. hasn't been coming up with any new initiatives and certainly no one through the entire process has come up with new initiatives other than China, which is essentially to keep giving the North Koreans time," said Auslin.
North Korea has used that time to rebuild its nuclear program. The United States has said it will not resume talks with Pyongyang until it agrees to restart nuclear inspections. Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Danny Russel stressed the importance of any talks being grounded in a real chance for progress.
"Talks for talk’s sake are not the path to verifiable denuclearization. It’s essential that North Korea participate as a serious negotiating partner," said Russel.
It's not at all clear that North Korea is ready for that.
"Leaders of small states, when they are pressured, can feel they're in a corner and commit hari kari. And I think China fears that," said American University’s Goodman.
That makes avoiding confrontation important to both China and the United States.
"China wants the status quo because it's helpful for their policy to have the U.S. off-balance and consumed with dealing with North Korea. The U.S. wants the status quo because, quite frankly, during a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we didn't and couldn't have dealt with something changing on the peninsula," said Auslin.
In Seoul, Kerry also hopes to ease tensions between South Korea and Japan over disputed islands that may contain large deposits of natural gas.