In a show of unity, the U.S., Japan and South Korea on Monday said they would not resume nuclear negotiations with North Korea until it stops its "provocative and belligerent" behavior and takes concrete steps to roll back its nuclear arms program.
"They need to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose in ending their provocations and let the world know they are now ready to come to the table and fulfill the commitments they have already made," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after meeting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan.
Clinton's meeting was intended to demonstrate a serious response to recent North Korean actions, including its deadly shelling of a South Korean island last month and its announced expansion of a uranium enrichment capability that the U.S. and others see as a defiant and dangerous step.
"All agree that North Korea's provocative and belligerent behavior jeopardizes peace and stability in Asia," Clinton said.
Conspicuous in their absence, however, were representatives of the two other countries that have worked with the U.S., Japan and South Korea on the North Korean problem: China and Russia. Together with North Korea, they are members of what has become known as the six-party talks.
Asked about China's absence, Clinton said Monday's meeting was specifically intended to coordinate with U.S. treaty allies — Japan and South Korea — rather than convene a larger group.
"We look forward to China playing a vital role in regional diplomacy," she said. "They have a unique relationship with North Korea, and we would hope that China would work with us to send a clear, unmistakable message to North Korea that they have to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose."
China, a traditional supporter of North Korea, has called for an emergency session of the so-called six-party talks — with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia and China in negotiations with North Korea.
But Clinton made clear that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul view a resumption of talks as tantamount to rewarding North Korea for behaving badly. The North has established a pattern of taking provocative actions, such as testing a nuclear device and launching ballistic missiles, and then seeking through negotiations to gain concessions from the U.S. and its partners.
A part of Clinton's message Monday was that the Obama administration will not go down that path, although she also reiterated that under the right conditions the U.S. is willing to talk to the North.
"North Korea first needs to take concrete steps to demonstrate a change of behavior," Clinton said.
In a joint written statement, the three officials condemned North Korea's construction of a new uranium enrichment facility. They said it violates U.N. Security Council resolutions as well as the North's commitments in a September 2005 agreement with the other parties to the six-party talks.
"Resumption of the six-party talks will require the (North) to make sincere efforts to improve relations with the (South) as well as taking concrete steps to demonstrate a genuine commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization," the U.S.-Japan-South Korea statement said.
Standing beside Clinton and mirroring her somber expression and tone, Maehara of Japan and Kim of South Korea both said they want China to do more to constrain North Korea. They also echoed Clinton's assertion that North Korea is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in 2006 and 2009 in response to North Korea tests of nuclear devices.
"We would like China to have a clearer stance in giving warning to North Korea" about the consequences of its actions, Kim said.
Kim and Maehara later met at the White House with Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon.
The three expressed common purpose in wanting North Korea to understand that if it steps back from a nuclear path, "the road to reintegration into the international community will be open, but if it chooses further provocations and threats, it will further isolate itself," National Security Council deputy spokesman Ben Chang said.
To underscore a message of solidarity, the Obama administration also announced that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would go to Seoul and Tokyo this week to consult with senior military officials and reassure both allies of the U.S. commitment to their defense. He will be accompanied by officials from the State Department, the Joint Staff, U.S. Pacific Command and Defense Secretary Robert Gates's civilian policy staff.
On Sunday evening, President Barack Obama called Chinese President Hu Jintao to discuss North Korea, the White House said, and urged Hu to let North Korea know "its provocations are unacceptable."
Gates also weighed in Monday while speaking to U.S. sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea.
"We need to figure out the way ahead with North Korea," he said. "Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula. And I think we just have to work with the Chinese and with others to see if we can't bring some greater stability, some greater predictability to the regime in Pyongyang."
The U.S. intervened in support of South Korea when North Korea invaded in June 1950 and is party to an armistice agreement that ended the fighting in July 1953. Clinton said she and her Japanese and South Korean counterparts agreed that the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 was a violation of the armistice.