TOKYO - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first official overseas trip was overshadowed by harsh North Korean rhetoric, epitomizing how new administrations often can be hemmed in by problems inherited from their predecessors.
At the outset of her Asian trip, Clinton declared in Japan: "I have come to Asia on my first trip as secretary of state to convey that America's relationships across the Pacific are indispensable to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the 21st century."
"We will be looking for ways to collaborate on issues that go beyond just our mutual concerns to really addressing global concerns," Clinton said at a ceremony to commemorate the arrival of the first secretary of state ever to make Japan their first overseas stop.
Yet her message was in danger of being eclipsed by Pyongyang, which just hours before vowed to press ahead with test-firing what wary neighboring governments, particularly Japan and South Korea, believe is a long-range missile.
Japan, with an unpopular government and struggling with deep economic woes, is particularly jittery at the moment and Clinton aims to reassure the country of its importance in the international arena.
"The bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone in our efforts around the world," she said. On Tuesday, she is expected to announce that she will send a special U.S. envoy to a Japanese-hosted donors conference for Pakistan.
In addition to meeting with top government officials and members of the opposition, Clinton will sign an agreement to move about 8,000 of the 50,000 Marines on the island of Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
But, North Korea looms large over her visit. She has promised to meet with the families of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. "We do want to press the North Koreans to be more forthcoming with information," she said en route to Tokyo.
Last week, she had warned North Korea against any "provocative action and unhelpful rhetoric" amid signs the Stalinist 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."
She also implicitly criticized the Bush administration for abandoning the so-called 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, reached during President Bill Clinton's first term in the White House, which called for the North to give up its plutonium-based weapons program.
The framework collapsed when the Bush team accused Pyongyang of maintaining a separate highly enriched uranium program, about which Secretary Clinton said there was still great debate. As a result, she said, the North had restarted and accelerated its plutonium program, allowing it to build a nuclear device that it had detonated in 2006.
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