As Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Japan on Monday, her first foreign visit as secretary of state, North Korea threatened to test what its neighbors believe is a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
Speaking briefly at an airport arrival ceremony, Clinton did not directly address the reports from North Korea, but on the flight over she continued to employ a tone that was notably softer than previous American pronouncements, echoing remarks she made in New York last week.
“Our position is when they move forward in presenting a verifiable and complete dismantling and denuclearization, we have a great openness to working with them,” she said.
She also repeated her offer to normalize ties with North Korea and help rebuild its economy if it abandoned its nuclear weapons.
But in what appeared to be a pointed challenge to her mission on this trip to Asia and a test for the new Obama administration, North Korea issued an oblique statement responding to recent news reports that it had been preparing to test-launch a Taepodong-2 missile from a base on its east coast.
“One will come to know later what will be launched,” the North’s state-run news agency, KCNA, said Monday, the 67th birthday of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.
In Seoul, the South Korean defense minister Lee Sang-hee said North Korea had been preparing to test a Taepodong-2 missile since January. In recent weeks, South Korean media have reported that North Korean engineers were assembling a 105-foot Taepodong-2 missile.
Analysts and government officials in the region have feared that North Korea may launch a long-range missile to help make its nuclear program a top foreign policy issue for President Barack Obama. North Korea has also threatened a naval clash with South Korea on their disputed western sea border.
With its economy in shambles and isolated from most of the world, North Korea has often used military threats to extract economic aid and diplomatic benefits from other countries.
As she landed in Tokyo, Clinton appeared to be sticking with her previously scheduled agenda of a trip this week to four Asian countries, intended to build solidarity between the United States and Asia on issues like the global economic crisis and climate change.
Stepping from her plane on a blustery, cold evening, she reaffirmed the “cornerstone” alliance between Washington and Tokyo and declared that “we have to work together to address the global financial crisis, which is affecting all of us.”
With the Japanese government reporting on Monday that its economy shrank at the sharpest quarterly rate since 1974, the financial crisis is sure to figure high on Clinton’s agenda, not just in Japan, but in Indonesia, South Korea, and China, which she will visit later in the week.
Choosing to make Asia her first official visit, rather than Europe or the Middle East, where secretaries of state traditionally begin their diplomatic travels, was also intended to send a message that the region was a high priority.