WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton begins her first foreign tour as U.S. secretary of state with a weeklong trip to Asia. The tour, which begins in Japan, will also take her to Indonesia, South Korea, and China.
The choice of Asia as the destination for Clinton's first trip abroad speaks volumes about the Obama administration's foreign-policy focus.
Ahead of her departure, Clinton said the United States and China "can benefit from and contribute to each other's successes."
To that end, Clinton is hoping to engage officials in Beijing in a fruitful dialogue on coping with the global economic crisis, and fighting climate change. China recently overtook the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Clinton begins her tour in Japan, which is currently reeling from revelations that its economy, the second-largest in the world after the U.S., is plunging at the fastest rate seen since the oil crisis of the 1970s.
But it is North Korea that has stolen many of the headlines ahead of Clinton's trip.
Speaking on February 13, the U.S. secretary of state took a softer tone than previous U.S. officials in offering greater openness to Pyongyang if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
"If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula's long-standing armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people," Clinton said.
But the offer has been met with rising speculation that North Korea is planning to test a long-range missile in the near future, possibly during Clinton's visit.
Defense officials in South Korea says Pyongyang appeared to have put its military systems on land, sea, and air on alert.
The United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea are all members of long-term six-party talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapons program.
Those talks have been largely fruitless, with the isolationist regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- who turns 67 on February 16 -- seemingly indifferent to threats or offers of aid from the outside world, despite massive food shortages and a looming humanitarian crisis in his country.
Analysts in Washington say the administration of George W. Bush failed to coordinate its policy on North Korea during his eight years in office. Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow with the Asia Studies Center at the Washington-based think tank the Heritage Foundation, says it's best to have a mix of diplomacy and sanctions.
"There are a lot of questions that any method or any approach will actually work to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Most analysts are skeptical that Pyongyang will do so," Klingner says.
"That said, I think we do need to try seeking a diplomatic solution in the North Korean nuclear problem," he continues. "What we would hope for is a coordinated, integrated strategy where you are using diplomacy, but one that is also used in conjunction with pressure tactics, which is now being called 'smart power.'"
...But Also Sharpening Sticks
Klingner says it's also important now for the Obama administration to begin what he calls "contingency planning" with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea in case this carrot-and-stick approach doesn't work.
Klingner says the United States also should identify and work to punish companies and government entities, in North Korea or elsewhere, that are in any way involved in Pyongyang's nuclear or missile programs.
Otherwise, Klingner says, Washington doesn't really need to do much that's new, but rather rely on the legal tools it already has to keep North Korea from developing and proliferating weapons.
"First of all, what we can do is resume enforcing U.S. and international law against North Korean illicit activities -- enforcing simply existing law against North Korean counterfeiting, and drug-running, as well as counterfeit pharmaceuticals," he says. "Also what we should do is begin implementation of UN Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which were passed in 2006 but were then allowed to remain dormant after North Korea simply agreed to return to the negotiating table."
UN Resolution 1695, in part, bars the shipment of missile parts to North Korea. Resolution 1718, in part, allows for the inspection of all shipments from North Korea to ensure that they contain nothing involved in weapons proliferation.
Dan Blumenthal agrees, saying that the United States and other countries concerned about Pyongyang's nuclear program used to have an effective "net" around North Korea to prevent proliferation.
Blumenthal served in the office of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and is now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, another Washington think tank.
Besides the two UN resolutions, Blumenthal points to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational effort begun in 2003 to interdict the transfer of weapons of mass destruction. This and other, less formal, kinds of cooperation can restore a cordon around North Korea that's hard to evade, he says.
"You cooperate with other [countries'] law-enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies and diplomatic agencies to inspect suspicious movements of merchant vessels and suspect individuals who are coming through to various countries using a diplomatic pouch or other means," Blumenthal says. "But there's a sophisticated proliferation network out there, and North Korea's very much a part of it."
North Korea isn't the only important topic for Clinton's visit to Asia. Indonesia is a large and economically vibrant country that also happens to have the world's largest Muslim population. Blumenthal says Clinton's two-day visit to Jakarta will be just as important as her stops in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
"It's a very good move by Secretary Clinton to go to Indonesia, not just because it's a successful Muslim democracy, but also because of its importance in the Asia-Pacific and its importance to our close ally, Australia," Blumenthal says. "Sending a signal that we're going to increase our cooperation with Indonesia is very important for all those reasons."