Kerry to seek diplomatic 'off-ramp' for North Korea

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When he visits Asia later this week, Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss potential diplomatic incentives for North Korea once it stops its bellicose rhetoric and threatening behavior, senior administration officials tell CNN.

Officials warn any resumption of talks with North Korea is premature, and could only come once Pyongyang adheres to its international obligations. But they say Kerry hopes the new emphasis on diplomacy will give the North Koreans a face-saving way to de-escalate the current situation.

"Secretary Kerry agrees that we have to have a robust deterrent because we really don't know what these guys will do," one senior official said. "But he also knows that the North Koreans need a diplomatic off-ramp and that they have to be able to see it."

Kerry left Saturday for the Middle East and then for London before traveling to Seoul, Bejing and Tokyo later next week.

The shape of a possible eventual deal, the sources said, is likely to take the form of previous attempts at satisfying what the United States sees as North Korea's ultimate goal of survival, which could include security guarantees, a road map to a peace treaty and a lifting of sanctions.

North Korea wants all three of these elements as part of any potential agreement with the United States.

"It's really old wine in a new bottle," one official said. "We have 30 plus statements, offers and positions we have put on the table over the last several years."

Earlier this week, the United States attempted to reduce friction with Pyongyang by emphasizing a return to diplomacy, recognizing that its announcements of American military deployments in response to belligerent statements by North Korea may have contributed to escalating tensions between the two countries.

"The U.S. is not matching their rhetoric," notes Joe Cirincione, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on nuclear issues who now serves as president of the Ploughshares Fund, which works against the spread of nuclear weapons. "They are not pouring gasoline on the fire."

Cirincione argues North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be ready to calm the situation with the United States and South Korea, having achieved his goals of solidifying his position with the North Korean people and military and increasing his bargaining position with South Korea and the United States.

"You are starting to see this tamp down and I suspect after a decent interval you might be able to restart talks directly with the North," he said.

But administration officials cautioned that any concessions made to North Korea could come only once the North stops its threats against the United States and its allies, agrees to a moratorium on missile and nuclear weapons testing and implements a promise made in 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits.

"There can't be an opening as long as they are engaged in this threatening behavior," this senior official said. "Getting them to stop the scare talk and get back to a diplomatic way forward is relatively hard to do at a moment like this when this is not the setting they are on. This is not a particularly nimble government and they are at full steam ahead."

That is why such a deal is far from attainable anytime soon, especially since the United States expects that North Korea will take some dramatic action as U.S.-South Korea military exercises wind down or as part of its celebrations for the country's most important holiday --- the April 15th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung.

Even though officials say North Korea has loaded two medium-range missiles onto mobile launchers on its east coast, that does not mean North Korea will actually launch them. Moreover, even as the government continues its warlike rhetoric, the United States and South Korea have not detected any other signs of unusual North Korean troop mobilizations or other signals to suggest an imminent threat.

Still, administration officials and experts caution a new show of force from Pyongyang could involve unconventional moves such as GPS jamming or a cyberattack.

"When we talk to analysts, (the) likely thing we will see at the end of this is that they do something," another official said. "What it is is the big question. Nobody knows and the North Koreans like it that way. They like the element of surprise."

One of Washington's biggest fears is that North Korea takes some action against South Korea along the lines of its 2010 shelling of a military base on nearby Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans.

Given that South Korea's new president, Park Geun-Hye, has ordered the South Korean military to issue a quick and punishing response to any North Korea military action, cross-border violence would almost surely escalate.

Another major part of Kerry's strategy during his trip to Asia, officials said, is to solidify cooperation with China, North Korea's largest and most important diplomatic and economic supporter.

Officials and analysts point to a growing debate in China about its long-standing unequivocal support for North Korea -- which the Obama administration hopes to seize upon to get Beijing to rein in the regime in Pyongyang.

The United States was heartened by China's strong support for UN sanctions in response to recent a recent North Korean nuclear test and missile launch, but officials remain skeptical whether Beijing will actually enforce the measures.

The Obama administration also wants Beijing to crack down on the illegal technology and goods sent to the North and pressure Kim Jong Un to end his threatening behavior.

Washington has launched an intense diplomatic campaign, including a recent phone call from Obama to China's new president, Xi Jinping, and one by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to China's defense minister. Kerry's trip will be followed by a visit by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey later this month and one by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon next month.

Despite Chinese reservations about Washington's recent moves to reassert itself in the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing been largely silent as the United States flexed its military muscle, sending Stealth bombers to the Korean Peninsula to join exercises with South Korea. And in a rare rebuke of North Korea, Beijing called North Korea's moves "regrettable."

Officials and experts attribute the change in China's stance to a growing frustration with Pyongyang.

"The Chinese always have us believe their influence on North Korea is less than we think," one senior official said.

"We usually don't believe them, but the North is not listening to the Chinese now and that really frustrates them. They are having a tough time."

China's more hard-line approach to its troublesome ally has significant implications, said Kurt Campbell, who recently stepped down as the State Department's top diplomat for Asia.

"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy over the short- to medium term, that has the potential to affect the calculus in northeast Asia," Campbell said Friday at a forum at Johns Hopkins University. The Chinese, he said, are starting to recognize that North Korea's recent actions are "antithetical to their own national security interests."