Kerry: U.S. Will Not Accept A Nuclear-Armed North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Seoul, South Korea, at a time of escalating tension on the Korean peninsula. There are expectations that North Korea might soon launch a medium-range missile.

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SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power.

GREENE: That is the voice of John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, in Seoul today. He was emphasizing the American position that North Korea must ultimately give up its nuclear weapons and stop threatening its neighbors. Kerry also seemed to knock down a report that North Korea already has the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile. NPR's Frank Langfitt joins me on the line now, from Seoul, where Secretary Kerry met today, with South Korea's president and foreign minister. And Frank, before we get to Kerry, can you tell us about this report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which suggests that North Korea seems to have miniaturized nuclear weapons in a way that they could fit them onto a missile.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. This came out at a congressional hearing, yesterday. It wasn't planned by the Pentagon. It came from a Colorado congressman named Doug Lamborn and he was reading a small unclassified section of a report in which the agency said they had moderate confidence that North Korea had nuclear weapons that they could actually deliver by a missile, although they thought the reliability of this was low.

Well, this caused a big stir because, you know, the assumption all along has been they have not been able to actually miniaturize their nuclear weapons. They have nukes, of course, but they can't actually send them anywhere. And so this suggested they were getting closer to the capability of actually delivering the weapon.

GREENE: This did cause a stir in Washington, as you said. There's a lot of back and forth about what the report actually meant. Did Secretary Kerry clear this up today?

LANGFITT: He did. He was asked about it and he tried to shoot it down. And here's exactly what he said.

KERRY: This is the Pentagon's assessment that I'm giving you. It is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.

LANGFITT: But, you know, he also acknowledged that the North Koreans are continuing to work on their nuclear devices and testing them. And he said they're getting closer to a dangerous line.

GREENE: OK. So the United States and South Korean forces have been in the midst of military exercises. Now Frank, did Secretary Kerry have any update on that?

LANGFITT: He said there were actually some exercises that the president decided not to take because he didn't want to inflame things. And he tried to portray the United States as being very reasonable here, and trying to calm things down on the Korean Peninsula, as Kim Jong Un, the president - the leader of North Korea has been making these big threats against its neighbors and also the United States.

GREENE: Well Frank, I mean, a lot of Americans have been hearing the news about those threats - as people in South Korea have. You've been reporting all week, that in South Korea, people are not really panicking at this point. I mean, did the secretary of state give any sense for how he sees this crisis and its severity.

LANGFITT: He talked about South Korea having a vision for the Korean Peninsula that would be peaceful, that would be, ultimately, be reunited and would be free of nuclear weapons. And he said, as the U.S. administrations have said before, that in order to really sit down have talks and get somewhere, that they have to see real efforts by North Korea to begin to give up nuclear weapons.

GREENE: So both a hope for peace and also a message of nothing's truly to panic about at this point.

LANGFITT: No, I mean, he was not panicked at all. And earlier we had a briefing from the U.S. official, in Seoul, who pointed out that they don't have any indications of any imminent missile launches, and that, in fact, in North Korea, in Pyongyang, in the capital, for Monday, that's Kim il Sung's birthday - that's the late founder of North Korea - they're planning a marathon there. So, while there's been this intense rhetoric coming from out of Pyongyang, if you're in the streets of Seoul, apparently, if you're in the streets of Pyongyang, you don't really see that kind of tension.

GREENE: Not the feeling of a war footing, it sounds like. Well, where Secretary Kerry goes next, to China, which, of course, is a very important country when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

LANGFITT: He is going there and he's going to be asking for a lot of help. And he was actually, kind of, pointed in the press conference today. He said, you know, China has the closest relationship of anybody in the world with North Korea, and has an enormous ability to make a difference there. The Chinese, though, are also very frustrated, themselves. They don't feel like the North Koreans are listening to them. And there are divisions in the foreign policy community in China. There are some people who are still supportive of North Korea, in part, because they see it as a buffer against American troops in South Korea. There are others in the foreign policy community who just feel that they're a big headache and an embarrassment. But there are divisions, and so exactly whether the Chinese Communist Party can all get on the same page, and whether, actually Kim Jong Un will listen to them, isn't clear.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting for us from Seoul, South Korea. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Frank Langfitt, reporting for us from Seoul, South Korea. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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