Wall Street Journal: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his campaign to stabilize North Asia and the Middle East, is wrestling to understand the strategic calculations of two obscure and autocratic men. The Wall Street Journal
By JAY SOLOMON
TOKYO—U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his campaign to stabilize North Asia and the Middle East, is wrestling to understand the strategic calculations of two obscure and autocratic men.
His ability to effectively game the intentions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, U.S. and allied officials said, could determine whether the Obama administration is capable of warding off military conflict in its second term.
It also could dictate whether President Barack Obama will make good on his pledge to staunch the spread of nuclear weapons globally.
“What happens with respect to North Korea can affect Iran, and what happens with Iran can affect North Korea,” Mr. Kerry said Saturday in Beijing after meeting China’s senior leadership.
The Obama administration and the United Nations are closely scrutinizing whether Pyongyang and Tehran may be cooperating in developing nuclear weapons, a charge the countries deny. Washington and the U.N. have long said they possessed evidence that Mr. Kim’s and Mr. Khamenei’s governments have coordinated in developing ballistic-missile systems.
The influence of the two leaders confronted the U.S. secretary of state at every stop of his six-nation swing through the Mideast, Europe and Asia this month—his third mission as Washington’s top diplomat.
Mr. Kerry, on visits to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, quizzed Asian diplomats and defense officials on what they knew about the strategy of Mr. Kim and the inner workings of North Korea’s government.
At each stop. U.S. officials also anxiously sought to track whether the leader, estimated to be 29 or 30 years old, would make good on his threat to test a medium-range missile, called the Musudan, over Asian waters. Many suspected the launch would happen Monday, on the birthday of Mr. Kim’s late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
To mark the start of North Korea’s most important holiday, Mr. Kim visited the mausoleum where his father and grandfather are entombed at midnight on Sunday. South Korea’s defense minister reiterated Monday that North Korea appeared to be ready for a missile launch but the day passed without incident.
Mr. Kim and his family have for decades menaced South Korea and Japan. An assassin believed to be under the orders of Kim Il Sung murdered the mother of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, in downtown Seoul in 1974 while targeting her father. The Kims also oversaw a string of kidnappings of Japanese citizens going back to the 1980s, including children and movie stars, according to Asian security officials.
Mr. Kerry particularly turned to China for insights into Mr. Kim’s behavior, according to senior U.S. officials who traveled with Mr. Kerry.
China’s Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army have cultivated the Kim family for decades as a buffer against the American and South Korean forces stationed in the south of the Demilitarized Zone. Beijing and Chinese companies have also played leading roles in aiding North Korea’s development of missile systems and nuclear technologies, according to U.S. and United Nations officials.
Still, the new Chinese government of President Xi Jinping seemed genuinely bewildered by Kim Jong Eun’s belligerent activities, said U.S. officials who took part in Mr. Kerry’s Saturday meetings in Beijing.
China’s government, these officials said, had regular contacts with Mr. Kim’s father, but have yet to develop a similar relationship with the son 16 months after he took power. A new generation of leaders in China also don’t have the same engagement with Pyongyang as older bureaucrats who helped North Korea fight the 1950-53 Korean War.
“If you believe in Korean culture, it is difficult to believe that a 29, 30-year-old would have complete control over bureaucracy, over military, over giving orders, thinking about what those orders mean,” said an aide to Mr. Kerry. “Whether it’s at the bottom or at the top…certainly the name of Kim Jong Eun is being used, and certainly he has been active.”
Mr. Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful religious and military authority, also is positioned to frustrate an array of Obama administration foreign-policy initiatives.
Last week, Mr. Kerry kicked off in Israel and the West Bank a renewed U.S. push to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks. He is seeking to increase American and international investment in the Palestinian territories in a bid to underwrite the first direct peace talks between the two sides in more than two years.
Mr. Khamenei and his elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, are seen as capable of holding the peace process hostage. The IRGC has been the chief financier and arms supplier to the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad over the past decade, according to U.S. and Arab officials. The groups have continued in recent months to fire Iranian-supplied rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, potentially provoking Israel into launching another military incursion into the Palestinian territory.
Mr. Khamenei is also overseeing Tehran’s hard-line position in talks with the U.S. and other global powers that are aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, according to U.S. and European officials.
This month, talks in Kazakhstan broke down without any advances or an agreement on when to have further discussions. Arab and Israeli allies are increasingly worried that Mr. Khamenei is instructing his negotiators to string out these international talks to provide Tehran with the political cover to continue advancing Iran’s nuclear program.
In recent months, Iran has begun installing hundreds of more advanced centrifuge machines at nuclear sites, which are capable of producing fuel at three times the current rate, according to U.S. and U.N. officials. Iran has also completed the development of an uranium-enrichment facility in a fortified military structure near the holy city of Qom, which is seen as largely immune from an American or Israeli attack.
“In Khameni’s eyes, he probably think he’s winning” his conflict with the U.S., said a senior Israeli official.
Alastair Gale in Seoul contributed to this article.