TOKYO Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that he was "not going to close the door" on the possibility of direct talks with North Korea, a move that would fit into his stated mission to find new approaches to long-festering foreign policy problems.
Kerry offered his vision of those issues in a 40-minute interview with a small group of journalists in Tokyo at the end of a tour that took him virtually around the world to address some of the most pressing matters of the day.
On the nine-day journey, Kerry pledged support to Syrian opposition leaders, announced a path toward restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, issued a joint U.S.-China statement on climate change and consulted with partners in the talks on Iran's nuclear program. The trip highlighted both Kerry's ambitions and the obstacles he faces in tackling new and old foreign policy conundrums.
"If we're going to start dealing effectively with rising levels of extremism in various parts of the world, we have to start showing some successes, and changing things for the better in some of these places where there are these kinds of tensions," Kerry said.
At every stop, however, the threat of an imminent North Korean missile launch overshadowed other topics. A trip that began with tough talk from Washington in response to the shrill threats from Pyongyang ended with Kerry and other senior U.S. officials softening their rhetoric and pushing diplomacy even as they braced for a launch.
One of Kerry's biggest goals was to enlist Beijing as a tougher interlocutor with the North Koreans. While he didn't get as enthusiastic a response as he'd wanted from the Chinese, the main supplier of food and fuel to Kim Jong Un's regime, he said it was significant that Chinese leaders, who typically steer clear of joint appearances with Western officials, stood side-by-side with him to emphasize their desire for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Kerry said he wouldn't rule out either direct U.S. talks or back-channel negotiations via the Chinese, provided North Korea first shows a commitment to dumping its controversial nuclear program.
Kerry was more circumspect on the Middle East, where some welcomed his plans to try to restart long-dead peace talks and others mocked his attempt as a fool's errand, given the hard-line stances of Israeli leaders and the deep internecine divisions on the Palestinian side.
Only days after visiting Ramallah and announcing plans for greater West Bank economic development, Kerry already faced a setback with the resignation of Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad, a trusted friend who was expected to help execute the plans. Kerry said he'd prefer that Fayyad stay on, but that he'll continue to push his initiative to build West Bank leaders into stronger partners for negotiations.
One of the biggest and bloodiest challenges Kerry faces is in Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime has turned into all-out civil war featuring Iranian-backed regime forces doing battle with a fractured rebel movement that's increasingly reliant on al-Qaida-linked fighters.
Kerry said he was pleased with the progress he saw among the Syrian opposition leaders with whom he met in London, though he appeared reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse Ghassan Hitto, the new premier of a nascent temporary government.