US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in South Korea, as the region braces for a possible North Korean missile test. Meanwhile, Japan has announced that it will permanently deploy missile interceptors to Okinawa.
Secretary of State Kerry told reporters in Seoul on Friday that China had "enormous" leverage over the communist regime in North Korea, while warning Pyongyang to comply with its international obligations.
"China has enormous capability to make a difference here," Kerry said. China is North Korea's only major ally, providing critical aid to Pyongyang.
Kerry's arrival in Seoul came a day after the disclosure of a controversial Pentagon intelligence report, which said that North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, disclosed by Colorado Representative Doug Lamborn during congressional testimony on Thursday, claimed with "moderate confidence" that Pyongyang could deliver a nuclear payload via ballistic missile. But the report acknowledged that the weapon would be unreliable.
The US defense and intelligence establishment, however, has subsequently distanced itself from the report. Pentagon spokesman George Little said that "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced" in the report.
And the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said that the report had been produced by the DIA and did not reflect the views of America's many other intelligence agencies.
"Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," Clapper said.
Guam and Okinawa at risk
But Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of US forces in the Pacific, told the Senate on Tuesday that the untested North Korean Musudan missile could potentially put Guam at risk. Washington has deployed a missile defense system to the island in the event of a North Korean launch.
Locklear said that he would recommend shooting down a North Korean missile only if it targeted US territory or Washington's regional allies.
Japan announced on Friday that it would permanently station Patriot missile interceptor batteries on its island of Okinawa, which also hosts a large US military presence. Although Tokyo had originally planned to deploy the missile batteries in March 2015, it is now seeking to station them on the island "at the earliest opportunity in April."
"We were considering advancing the plan that will protect people's lives and property against ballistic missiles," Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a news conference on Friday.
'Basic rules and norms'
US President Barack Obama met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday to discuss the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
"We both agree that now is the time for North Korea to end the belligerent approach they have taken and to try to lower temperatures," Obama told reporters.
"It's important for North Korea, like every other country in the world, to observe basic rules and norms," he said, adding that Washington would "continue to try to work to resolve some of those issues diplomatically.”
Secretary of State Kerry's trip to South Korea is part of his maiden four-day tour of East Asia, including stops in China and Japan. The Obama administration has sought to "pivot" Washington's foreign policy focus from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia, where China's rapid economic and military rise to power is changing the regional balance of power.
slk/rg (AP, AFP, dpa)