HONOLULU – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan on Saturday presented a unified front against North Korea’s recent missile tests, which the country has been conducting at its fastest rate in years.
“I think it is clear to all of us that the DPRK is in a phase of provocation,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Honolulu after an afternoon of meetings. He said the three countries would “continue to hold the DPRK accountable,” using an abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
But all three officials said their governments were open to talks with the North, even as they condemned the recent tests. “We reaffirmed that diplomacy and dialogue with North Korea is more important than ever,” South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said.
Mr. Blinken’s appearance with Mr. Chung and Yoshimasa Hayashi, the foreign minister of Japan, was meant to be a signal moment in the Biden administration’s efforts to defuse a potential crisis with North Korea.
The governments of South Korea and Japan have recently had disagreements over how to deal with the North. Seoul wants to offer more diplomatic enticements to Pyongyang, while Tokyo advocates a harder line, veering more toward harsher United Nations sanctions.
So far this year, North Korea has conducted seven missile tests, more than in all of 2021.
Officials with the United States and its allies were particularly alarmed by the North’s Jan. 30 test, which they said was of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, the most powerful missile the country had tested since 2017. It raised the specter of a return to the tensions of President Donald J. Trump’s first year in office, when the North tested long-range missiles and a nuclear device, and Mr. Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” in return.
Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, recently suggested that he might end a self-imposed moratorium on testing such powerful weapons. Last month, North Korean state media said Mr. Kim had ordered officials to “promptly investigate the issue of restarting all activities that had been temporarily suspended,” presumably a reference to the moratorium.
Some analysts said Mr. Kim and other officials might have already decided on a course of action, but that their intentions remained a mystery.
“We have data points. We have a bunch of bones, but we do not know how the skeleton fits together or which way it’ll go, ”said Robert Carlin, a former US intelligence analyst on North Korea.
The meetings in Honolulu were aimed not only at discussing North Korea, but at trying to smooth out tensions between Japan and South Korea, with the United States playing conciliator.
The two countries have longstanding disagreements over historical issues stemming from World War II and Japan’s onetime status as South Korea’s colonial ruler. In November, Mr. Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman met in Washington with her counterparts from both countries, but conflicts between the South Korean and Japanese officials resulted in her giving an awkward solo news conference afterwards.
By that measure, the news conference in Honolulu on Saturday was an improvement, though the three officials said nothing substantial about the tensions between Japan and South Korea. They did discuss the rising friction in the region over China’s territorial claims and what some see as its economic coercion of smaller neighbors.
But the immediate issue was North Korea. Mr. Chung underscored President Moon Jae-in of South Korea’s belief in the importance of diplomatic outreach to the North. Mr. Moon, who helped to bring about the historic direct talks between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, hopes to make reconciliation between the Koreas a centerpiece of his legacy.
South Korea has a presidential election in March, and Mr. Moon’s successor could take a different approach. U.S. officials say they are keeping a close eye on the candidates’ positions toward North Korea.
Mr. Hayashi emphasized that Japan was also open to diplomacy, reiterating that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was ready to meet with Mr. Kim without preconditions – a position taken by all three nations’ leaders. But he said North Korea also had to address certain issues critical to Japan, including its past abductions of Japanese citizens.
Last month, after the North began its latest spate of missile tests, the State Department called on the United Nations to impose new sanctions on the country. But China and Russia blocked the proposal.
American officials say they have tried various ways of reaching out to North Korea in hopes of restarting diplomacy, which has stalled since a failed summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019. But they said they had heard nothing back from the North, which has closed itself off to the outside world even more than usual since the pandemic began.
“We have no hostile intent towards the DPRK,” Mr. Blinken said on Saturday. “We remain open to dialogue with no preconditions if Pyongyang chooses that path.”
Mr. Blinken’s stop in Hawaii was the last in a weeklong trip across the Asia-Pacific region, following visits to Australia and Fiji. The goal was to emphasize that Asia is at the center of President Biden’s foreign policy.