North Korea looms over Rex Tillerson’s first Asia trip

Tokyo/Seoul/Beijing (CNN)When Rex Tillerson was sworn in as US Secretary of State, his boss said he would bring a “clear-eyed focus to foreign affairs.”

He’ll need it on his first trip to Asia, which begins Wednesday, as tensions flare in the volatile region.
North Korea’s missile program is getting quicker and smarter, threatening the United States and its two key East Asian allies — Japan and South Korea. The latter is reeling after the ouster of its president.
    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.
    Here, CNN’s Asia correspondents detail the challenges Tillerson faces on each stop:

    Tokyo (CNN) — Tillerson’s most pressing issue in Japan — like the region as a whole — is the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.
    The country’s provocative leader Kim Jong Un test-fired a ballistic missile during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit with US President Donald Trump in Florida, the timing of which led some analysts to believe it was a message for Tokyo.

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    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 andglobal security.
    From CNN’s Will Ripley

    Seoul (CNN) — The main challenge for South Korean officials when Tillerson arrives is to convince him it’s business as usual, when it’s anything but.
    Park Geun-hye has just been ousted from office, the country is bitterly divided and the government has been effectively paralyzed since the corruption scandal broke months ago.

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    But those holding the fort will work hard to get the assurances they want from the top US diplomat.
    Tillerson will meet acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn for the first time and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, whom he met in February at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bonn, Germany.
    When US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited last month, he said what South Koreans wanted to hear — that Washington promised an “overwhelming” response to any attack mounted by North Korea. Officials will be looking for statements along the same lines from Tillerson.
    Tillerson also arrives at a time when Seoul claims Beijing is punishing it economically for agreeing to install THAAD, the US missile defense system that Washington says is needed to counter the North Korean missile threat.
    With Park now out of the picture, he’ll also be seeking assurances that South Korea’s new leader honors the agreement. Snap elections will be held by the end of May.
    The first elements of THAAD arrived in South Korea last week, the official line is it could be fully operational by July at the earliest.
    From CNN’s Paula Hancocks

    Beijing (CNN) —Tillerson’s first priority during scheduled meetings in Beijing Saturday will be to iron out the details of a tentative Florida summit scheduled in April between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
    It would be the first meeting between the two men, in what many argue is the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
    There is no shortage of items that should be discussed.

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