Secretary of State John F. Kerry responded sharply Thursday to suggestions that the Obama administration's focus on its nuclear negotiations with Iran had left North Korea free to build its own weapons program, leading to its fourth nuclear test explosion.
"That premise is absolutely inaccurate. It's without foundation," Kerry said at the end of a new year's roundup of foreign policy issues.
"Let me just make it clear. North Korea has never been left unattended to. Not for one day," Kerry told reporters. "We have had meetings. We have had constant consultations." Kerry said he spoke to his Chinese counterpart, after calls Wednesday to the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers.
He and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi "discussed various options and ways in which we should proceed forward. We agreed that there cannot be business as usual," regarding North Korea, Kerry said, "and we agreed that we will work very closely together to determine the steps that we can take in order to address our increasing concerns about that nuclear test."
Republicans campaigning for their party's presidential nomination blamed the administration for failing to rein in North Korea. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, charged that "President Obama has stood idly by" while Pyongyang expanded its arsenal. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, extended the blame from Obama back to the Bill Clinton administration, although Pyongyang exploded its first nuclear weapon in 2006, during the administration of President George W. Bush, following the collapse of nonproliferation talks.
Rubio and Cruz have said that, as president, they would revoke the Iran nuclear deal.
The administration has differentiated the two countries, saying that Iran had not fully developed a weapons capability at the time it agreed to negotiations that essentially block it from doing so. North Korea has refused to enter discussions over the elimination of its nuclear weapons, the only basis on which Obama has said he would talk to Pyongyang.
In separate comments, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the North Korean test was "the latest example of the failed national security agenda of the Obama administration" and said the United States should deploy the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea.
News accounts quoted unnamed South Korean military officials saying they were asking for deployment of the defense system. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that "at this point . . . there have been no discussions or consultations with the South Koreans about the deployment of what's called a THAAD battery." He said that "we continue to be resolute in our commitment" to Seoul's national security.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said that "for the last two or three years, we've been doing an awful lot to deal with the instability in Northeast Asia," including additional missile defense, and the stationing of 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet in the Pacific.