By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
TOKYO, Feb. 17 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned North Korea on Tuesday not to conduct a missile launch, saying that it "would be very unhelpful" to any opportunity to improve relations with the United States.
Near-daily news reports in Asia have suggested that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile, and on Monday, the 67th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang said that it has the right to "space development" -- a euphemism to disguise a missile test as a satellite launch.
At a news conference, Clinton said North Korea's actions will determine whether the Obama administration reaches out in turn.
"If North Korea abides by the obligations it has already entered into and verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear program, then there will be a reciprocal response, certainly from the United States," Clinton said. "But the decision as to whether North Korea will cooperate in [negotiations], end provocative language and actions, is up to them -- and we are watching very closely."
Clinton, who arrived here on the first stop of her Asian tour Monday, also surprised the embattled government of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso by extending an invitation for him to visit the White House on Feb. 24, making him the first foreign leader to receive such an invitation from President Obama.
At an elaborate arrival ceremony Monday night, Clinton lauded the U.S.-Japanese partnership, calling it "a cornerstone of our efforts around the world." She addressed a group of dignitaries that included two female Japanese astronauts who participated in the U.S. space shuttle program and Japanese Special Olympics athletes who recently competed in Idaho.
On Tuesday morning, Clinton participated in another welcoming ceremony and a purification rite at a Shinto shrine to former Emperor Meiji. She was given tea and exchanged gifts with the main priests, telling them that she appreciated the message of "harmony and peace that this shrine represents."
Later, she told about 200 U.S. Embassy employees that the notion of peace and harmony was "not only a good concept for religious shrines, it's a good concept for America's role in the world. We need to be looking to create more balance, more harmony."
Clinton is the first secretary of state in nearly 50 years to start his or her tenure with a trip to Asia, a contrast to the European and Middle Eastern tours that usually take precedence. On arrival here, she emphasized that she had selected Asia for her first overseas trip as chief U.S. diplomat to underscore the importance she places on U.S. transpacific relationships.
But for Japan, even greater importance is attached to the symbolism of Tokyo meriting the first stop of her swing through Asia. Her arrival breaks a dispiriting run of bad news for the Japanese government. The export-dependent economy is sinking fast and the prime minister's popularity even faster.
The visit also helps soothe a national neurosis called "Japan passing." The term came to haunt Japan after President Bill Clinton made a nine-day visit to China in 1998, and never dropped by Japan to say hello.
That non-visit by the secretary of state's husband helped spark what has become a chronic Japanese worry: that the focus of U.S. policy in East Asia has permanently shifted to China, when it is not focused on the question of persuading North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.
The fact that Secretary Clinton is making this her first foreign stop "indicates the Obama administration attaches importance to Japan and Japan-U.S. relations," said Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone.
Before reporters, Clinton and Nakasone signed an agreement, negotiated by the Bush administration, which will move 8,000 of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan to Guam, a transfer Japan is largely paying for.
As if to emphasize her interest in Japan, Clinton will mix high diplomacy -- including dinner with Aso -- with cultural and symbolic events, such as tea with the empress. She also met with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, a highly emotional subject in Japan, and will hold a town hall meeting at Tokyo University.
"I think it's important that we get out of the ministerial buildings and listen to the people in the countries where I'll be visiting," Clinton told reporters traveling with her.
Her schedule suggests that the White House might be hedging its bets on Aso. After dinner with the prime minister, whose approval rating has sunk below 10 percent, she is scheduled to meet with opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan; secretaries of state often meet with opposition leaders but have rarely done so in Japan.
Correspondent Blaine Harden contributed to this report.