But amid more bellicose threats from North Korea and on the eve of a new round of talks with Iran, neither the administration nor its Asian and European allies appear any closer to resolving either case.
North Korea brought the Obama administration’s difficulties into sharp relief Tuesday by announcing that it would restart a shuttered nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon facility and increase production of nuclear weapons material.
The administration has played down the North’s recent warnings, and U.S. officials suggested that the threat to restart the reactor might be a bluff. Still, the administration made clear that it is alarmed by recent statements from North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong Un.
“What Kim Jong Un has been choosing to do is provocative, it is dangerous, reckless,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said after a meeting with South Korea’s visiting foreign minister.
Kerry noted that he will be in Seoul next week and that the new president of South Korea will meet President Obama in Washington in May. Both Kerry and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that diplomacy could still be salvaged but that the onus is on the North.
In the case of Iran, the administration is pursuing an elusive deal to halt that country’s nuclear advances. Diplomats from the United States and five other world powers will meet with Iranian officials in Kazakhstan on Friday for negotiations aimed at persuading Tehran to agree to limits on its nuclear program. A round of talks in February was hailed as “positive” by Iranian officials, but it yielded no concessions by Iran.
Western diplomats involved in preparations for this week’s talks say Iran is expected to make a new offer that would include an agreement to restrict or suspend some of its production of enriched uranium. But they say Iran is likely to insist on immediate relief from economic sanctions, something that the United States and its European allies are not likely to grant.
A former senior administration official said Monday that chances for a deal in the near future remain slim. “I have such low expectations for what’s going to come out of this next round of talks that I think it’s a mistake to try to set the bar,” the former adviser, Gary Samore, told a panel at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I think that it really is unrealistic to expect that there’ll be some kind of breakthrough in these talks.”
While Iran says its nuclear program is designed to produce electricity, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006. The first two tests used fissile material produced by the reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in 2007 as part of a diplomatic deal under which heavy fuel oil was sent to the North.