Kerry says Hiroshima 'gut-wrenching' reminder of need to rid world of nuclear weapons

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John Kerry makes historic visit to Hiroshima

HIROSHIMA, Japan -- John Kerry on Monday became the first U.S. secretary of state to pay respects at Hiroshima's memorial to victims of the 1945 U.S. nuclear attack, describing the museum as a "gut-wrenching" reminder of the need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Kerry also told a news conference that U.S. President Obama wants to visit Hiroshima, but that he did not know if the U.S. leader's complex schedule would allow him to do so when he travels to Japan for a Group of Seven (G7) summit in May.

Following the visit by Kerry and his G7 counterparts, the foreign ministers issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to building a world without nuclear arms, but said the push had been made more complex by North Korea's repeated provocations and by the worsening security in Syria and Ukraine.

SEE ALSO: John Kerry: The presidential election is 'embarrassing' for the US

Kerry toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, whose haunting displays include photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs.

"It is a reminder of the depth of the obligation everyone of us in public life carries ... to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons," Kerry told a news conference.

See more of Kerry's visit to Japan:

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Kerry says Hiroshima 'gut-wrenching' reminder of need to rid world of nuclear weapons
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a news conference at the conclusion of the G7 foreign ministers meetings in Hiroshima, Japan, April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a news conference at the conclusion of the G7 foreign ministers meetings in Hiroshima, Japan, April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (C) bids farewell to Secretary of State John Kerry (L) before he boards his plane to depart after participating in the G7 foreign minister meetings in nearby Hiroshima at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN - APRIL 11: Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (4th R), US Secretary of State John Kerry (4th L), European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L), Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion (2nd L), British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (3rd L), Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (2nd R), French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (R) and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (3rd R) walk down the steps together after placing wreaths in front of the Memorial Cenotaph for the 1945 atomic bombing victims in the Peace Memorial Park, on the sidelines of the G7 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Hiroshima on April 11, 2016. Foreign ministers made the landmark visit on April 11 to the memorial site for the world's first nuclear attack in Hiroshima. (Photo by Foreign Ministry of Japan / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) talks with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida after they and fellow G7 foreign ministers laid wreaths at the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, in this photo released by Kyodo April 11, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN. THIS IMAGE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY, AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WILL BE PROVIDED SEPARATELY.
Children give lei necklaces to G7 foreign ministers including Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida after they placed wreaths at the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (4th R) prepares to lay a wreath at the cenotaph with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (4th L) and fellow G7 foreign ministers at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, in this photo released by Kyodo April 11, 2016. Ministers are (R-L) E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, Kerry, Kishida, Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center L) puts his arm around Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (center R) after they and fellow G7 foreign ministers laid wreaths at the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. Also pictured are: Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion (L), Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (2nd L), Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2nd R) and Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (R). REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and his fellow G7 foreign ministers including Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion (L) and Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (2nd L) take their seats for a working session, the fourth session of the their meetings in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
School children hold national flags as France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (L), Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (3rd L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (4th L) and G7 foreign ministers visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd R) presents a U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with a replica of a letter on a friendly diplomatic matter from former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to the Tycoon of Japan in 1861, before their bilateral meeting alongside the G7 foreign ministers meetings in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) talks to Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd L) during a ceremonial dance at the Itsukushima Shrine, as they and Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (L) and Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (R) take a cultural break from their G7 foreign minister meetings in nearby Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island, Japan, April 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) talks to Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd L) during a ceremonial dance at the Itsukushima Shrine, as they and Britain's Foreign Minister Philip Hammond (L), Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (4th L), France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (5th L) and Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion (6th L) take a cultural break from their G7 foreign minister meetings in nearby Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island, Japan, April 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN - APRIL 11 : US Secretary of State John Kerry holds a press conference at the International Media Center in Hiroshima, Japan on April 11, 2016 after Foreign Ministers of G7 countries visit the Peace Memorial Museum, the Atomic Bomb Dome and lied wreath at the Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims on April 11, 2016. G7 Hiroshima Foreign Ministers Meeting is held in Hiroshima, Japan during two days from April 10 to 11, 2016. It is the first of ten related ministerial meetings held leading up to the Ise-Shima Summit 2016 as Japan assumed the Presidency of the G7 Summit this year on May 26 and 27 in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, Japan. (Photo by David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN - APRIL 11 : US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and France Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayraul (R) walk at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima city as Foreign Ministers of G7 countries visit the Peace Memorial Museum, the Atomic Bomb Dome and place a wreath at the Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima, Japan on April 11, 2016. G7 Hiroshima Foreign Ministers Meeting is held in Hiroshima, Japan during two days from April 10 to 11, 2016. It is the first of ten related ministerial meetings held leading up to the Ise-Shima Summit 2016 as Japan assumed the Presidency of the G7 Summit this year on May 26 and 27 in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, Japan. (Photo by David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States then laid white wreaths at a cenotaph to the victims of the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing, which reduced the city to ashes and killed some 140,000 people by the end of that year.

While he is not the highest-ranking U.S. official to have toured the museum and memorial park, a distinction that belongs to then-U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in 2008, Kerry is the most senior executive branch official to visit.

"Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial. It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself," the chief U.S. diplomat wrote in a guest book.

After a moment of silence by the ministers, Japanese school children, who had lined the entrance waving flags of all the G7 nations, presented them with leis made of paper cranes, symbolizing peace, in each country's national colors.

At Kerry's suggestion, the ministers also made an impromptu visit to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of the only structure left standing near the hypocentre of the bomb explosion and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Three days after a U.S. warplane dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Japan surrendered six days later.

Speculation has mounted that Kerry's trip could pave the way for an unprecedented visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president when Obama attends the annual G7 leaders summit in another Japanese city next month.

The top U.S. diplomat said he would tell Obama how important it was to visit, but that he did not know when the president might do so.

A visit could be controversial in America if it were viewed as an apology. A majority of Americans still view the bombings as justified to end the war and save U.S. lives, while the vast majority of Japanese believe it was not justified.

While saying the White House has not yet decided, a senior U.S. official on Sunday said Obama, who last month visited Cuba, has shown he is willing to do controversial things such as visiting Havana last month.

Hopes for Obama's visit to Hiroshima were raised after his April 2009 speech in Prague calling for a world without nuclear weapons. He later said that he would be honored to visit the two nuclear-attacked cities.

The G7 foreign ministers' trip to the museum and memorial is part of Japan's effort to send a strong nuclear disarmament message from Hiroshima, the world's first city to suffer atomic bombing.

"I think this first-ever visit by G7 foreign ministers to the peace memorial park is a historic first step towards reviving momentum toward a world without nuclear weapons," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement.

In a separate, detailed statement, the G7 ministers singled out North Korea for sharp criticism, condemning its recent nuclear test and launches using ballistic missile technology.

And in a statement on maritime security, they voiced their strong opposition to provocative attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas, an apparent reference to China, which is locked in territorial disputes with other nations including the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.

(Additional writing by Linda Sieg and additional reporting by Tim Kelly and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

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