TOKYO – US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off the official program of her first overseas trip in Tokyo on Tuesday, visiting a Japanese cultural site and meeting US Embassy staff under the shadow of threatening rhetoric from North Korea.
Clinton participated in a purification rite and welcoming ceremony at a Shinto shrine to the father of modern Japan, Emperor Meiji. She said its message of "balance and harmony" would set the tone for the Obama administration's foreign policy, especially in tough economic times.
"It's not only a good concept for religious shrines, it's a good concept for America's role in the world," she told about 200 embassy employees afterward. "We need to be looking to create more balance, more harmony. We're going to reaching out to friends and allies like our hosts here in Japan."
"We're going to be listening but we're also going to be asking for more partnerships to come together to try to work with us to handle the problems that none of us can handle alone," Clinton said, mentioning again her top agenda items: climate change and the world financial crisis.
Japan, led by a deeply unpopular government and struggling with dire economic woes, is particularly jittery at the moment and Clinton aims to reassure the country of its importance in the international arena.
"These are hard times economically for the Japanese people, just as (they are) in many places around the world," she said. But she said the US-Japan alliance remains the bedrock of American policy in the Pacific, adding: "I am absolutely confident we will navigate our way through these difficulties."
Later Tuesday, Clinton will sign an agreement to move about 8,000 of the 50,000 Marines on the Japanese island of Okinawa to the US Pacific territory of Guam. The troop's continued presence in Okinawa has been major source of tension in US-Japan relations.
She is also expected to announce that she will send a special US envoy to a Japanese-hosted donors conference for Pakistan.
It is the first time in nearly 50 years that a secretary of state has made Asia the maiden voyage abroad. But efforts to focus the trip on the broader agenda were eclipsed by North Korea, which hinted at an upcoming missile test just hours before Clinton arrived in Japan.
Last week, Clinton warned North Korea against any "provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric" amid signs the nation was preparing to test fire a missile capable of reaching the western United States.
But on Monday, the 67th birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang claimed that it has the right to "space development" — a term it has used in the past to disguise a missile test as a satellite launch. When North Korea test-fired a long-range missile in 1998, it claimed to have put a satellite into orbit.
On Sunday, Clinton said told reporters aboard her plane that North Korea needs to live up to commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs, saying Washington is willing to normalize ties with it in return for nuclear disarmament.
"The North Koreans have already agreed to dismantling," she said. "We expect them to fulfill the obligations that they entered into."
To show solidarity with Japan, Clinton will also meet Tuesday with families of Japanese citizens allegedly kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, a subject of much angst in Japan and she said the US would continue to press the North Koreans to resolve concerns on the matter.