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North Korea threat lingers at start of Tillerson’s first Asia trip

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to begin his first trip to Asia in his new role and will attempt to forge cooperation with important U.S. allies in the region, while downplaying fears that the U.S. is looking to isolate itself diplomatically. On his first trip to Asia as top U.S. diplomat, Rex Tillerson wants to forge cooperation with Japan, South Korea and China against the nuclear threat from North Korea and demonstrate “America First” does not mean a U.S. diplomatic retreat from the volatile region. Tillerson will need to convince both that it’s in their best interests to remain committed to the United States, and its controversial missile defense system. However, his diplomatic skills will get their biggest test on the last leg of his trip when he becomes the first Trump Cabinet member to visit China and seeks to tap the country’s perceived leverage over the North Korean regime.

And last week, when Kim launched four ballistic missiles simultaneously, North Korean state media implied the launch was practice for striking US military bases in Japan, where around 52,000 US service members are based.Tillerson will meet with Abe and his counterpart Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, with Japan seeking reassurance from the United States that it remains Washington’s closest and most trusted ally in the Asia-Pacific.Though Trump frayed nerves on the campaign trail by calling into question US alliances in the region, the new administration has mostly dialed back that rhetoric.Tensions between Japan and the US’ other big ally in the region, South Korea, could provide a challenge for Tillerson as he seeks to rein in North Korea.

The Japanese ambassador was recalled from Seoul in January over a controversial statue depicting the “comfort women” who were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese forces before and during World War II.With deft, old-fashioned diplomacy, Tillerson has to find a way to encourage Japan and South Korea to resolve their issues so all three countries can focus on the growing threat Pyongyang poses to regional and global security.

The U.S. is currently involved in annual military drills with South Korea that North Korea regards as a rehearsal for invasion. In a show of defiance, the North fired four ballistic missiles into the ocean off Japan last week. The next day, the U.S. began bringing in equipment for the long-planned deployment in South Korea of a missile defense system, known by its acronym, THAAD.

A Trump administration official told Reuters that Tillerson’s position on THAAD would be uncompromising.”THAAD is non-negotiable,” the official told Reuters. “This is one of those things where Beijing is just going to have to adapt to or live in a perpetual cycle of outrage.”But this is a chance to lay down a marker on what we would need from China and to hear from them what they would want to see in return. Everyone is eyes-open that they are not going to give us anything on North Korea without something in return.”

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