Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sets out for her first foreign trip as America's top diplomat in just a few days.
With special U.S. envoys already traveling in the Middle East and Afghanistan — and European officials flocking to Washington to meet with her — Clinton decided to head to Asia. She is to visit China, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea starting on Sunday.
The trip will take her to several Asian capitals, including Beijing, where she made a groundbreaking speech at an international conference on women in 1995.
"It is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing and for the world to hear that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights," Clinton said at the time.
Though she's still likely to raise human rights issues — she travels to China this time in a much different role and with a much broader agenda — her aides say she'll focus mainly on climate change and the global financial crisis. She recently told reporters at the State Department that she'll be pursuing a comprehensive dialogue with China.
Clinton's trip also takes her to Tokyo, Seoul and Jakarta.
Spokesman Robert Wood said the region is crucial to many issues on the secretary's plate.
"The secretary felt that going to Asia would send a tremendous signal to Asia and others in the world of the importance of Asia, particularly to our foreign policy agenda," he said.
How to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program likely will be a theme throughout the trip.
Woodrow Wilson scholar Selig Harrison says he doesn't envy the next U.S. negotiator on that subject. Just back from his 11th trip to Pyongyang, Harrison said he's convinced that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, had a stroke; that hawks are now in control of foreign policy there; and that North Korea is unlikely to give up the plutonium that officials there claim they've weaponized.
"The U.S. has offered the normalization of relations with North Korea as the reward for denuclearization," Harrison said. "Now North Korea is asking us to reverse the sequence. They want us to accept them as a nuclear weapons state while moving at the same time toward friendly relations."
His suggestion for the Obama administration is to try to cap North Korea's nuclear program for now, revive talks on a missile-limitation deal, and persuade Japan to help get the six-party denuclearization talks back on track by delivering promised fuel to North Korea.
Harrison said the North Korean officials he met made clear that energy is a priority.
"They certainly stay on message — and that was the message — and of course when you are in Pyongyang in January when it is so cold ... and you find that the ministry of trade is like walking in an icebox ... you know they are all feeling the energy shortage very acutely," he said. "So, to them this energy quid pro quo in negotiations is very important."
State Department officials say the Obama administration is still reviewing policy options toward North Korea. The one thing Clinton has said on record is that she thinks the six-party talks are essential.