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SEOUL – As the international community closely watches North Korea for signs of an expected missile test, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday called for “responsible leadership” from Kim Jong Un, saying denuclearization is the only acceptable option for the rogue nation.

Kerry, who met with South Korean leaders in Seoul on Friday, said the U.S. is willing to enter into dialogue with North Korea, moves towards taking its nuclear capabilities off the table.

“We are all united in the fact that North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power,” Kerry said at a press conference following a day of meetings with South Korean officials, including new president Park Geun-hye. “The rhetoric that we are hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard.”

His first visit to Seoul as secretary of state comes after weeks of increasingly belligerent threats from the North, which many believe will conduct missile launches or some other form of provocation in the near future. With tensions on both sides of the highly-militarized border between the two Koreas mounting, he also vowed that the U.S. would defend itself and its allies against any North Korean attack.

If Pyongyang follows through on its threat to test-fire a medium-range Musudan missile, “it would really be one more unnecessary, unfortunate, unwanted contribution to an already volatile, potentially dangerous situation,” he said. “Kim Jong Un needs to understand, which I think he probably does, what the outcome of a conflict would probably be.”

“If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it’s across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community,” Kerry told reporters. “And it will be a provocation and unwanted act that will raise people’s temperatures.”

A missile launch would be a huge mistake, Kerry said. “It will further isolate his country and further isolate his people who are desperate for food and not missile launches.”

Kerry rebuffed the finding of a new U.S. intelligence report that claims North Korea is now capable of arming missiles with nuclear warheads, a measure that would indicate significant development in its nuclear program and put it closer towards being able to strike Pacific targets, or even mainland U.S. The existence of the report, which deemed the reliability of those weapons as low, was revealed on Thursday by a U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

“It is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK (North Korea) has fully tested, developed or demonstrated” the abilities described in the report, Kerry said.

Following the revelation, U.S. officials reacted quickly to clarify the report’s contents.

“The statement read by the member (Lamborn) is not an intelligence community assessment,” said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

“Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” Clapper was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Also on Thursday, DOD Press Secretary George Little issued a statement.

“While I cannot speak to all the details of a report that is classified in its entirety, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced” by Lamborn, the statement said. “The United States continues to closely monitor the North Korean nuclear program and calls upon North Korea to honor its international obligations.”

During his visit, Kerry met with his South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, and new South Korean President Park Geun-hye. He praised Park’s vision of achieving a peaceful, reunited peninsula beginning with trust-building measures between the North and South.

The secretary’s mention of possible talks with the North came one day after South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kilh-jae offered to hold talks with Pyongyang about the fate of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly-run factory compound north of the Demilitarized Zone that was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. North Korea announced last week that it was barring South Korean workers from entering the complex, and days later withdrew its 53,000 workers from Kaesong.

“We hope the North Korean authorities come out to the dialogue table so that discussions can actually be held to address issues North Korea wishes to raise,” a statement issued Thursday by the Unification Ministry said.

But Pyongyang must be serious about denuclearization if talks are to occur, Kerry said.

“It’s up to Kim Jong Un what he decides to do,” Kerry said. “No one is going to talk for the sake of talking and no one is going to continue playing this round-robin game which is repeated every few years.”

Kerry will travel next to China, where he said he hopes to “lay out a path with China that will diffuse this tension.”

“I think it’s clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship, or as significant an impact, on the DPRK (North Korea) than China,” he said. “China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here.”

rowland.ashley@stripes.com


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