RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, begins a six-day sweep through East Asia today. It's his first trip to the region as America's top diplomat. And his first stop is Japan. And as NPR's Elise Hu reports, he heads into a region full of challenges old and new.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).
ELISE HU, BYLINE: South Koreans celebrated in the streets of Seoul last weekend after the ouster of their president for abuse of power. But the historic impeachment also brought on a power vacuum just as the new American administration begins its engagement in Asia.
JOHN DELURY: South Korea now enters a vortex of a political campaign, an election that has to take place in two months.
HU: John Delury is a professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. He echoes recent Korean opinion polls in saying opposition parties, which are liberal, are likely to take power.
DELURY: One of the clearest differences between South Korean liberals and conservatives is how they approach North Korea.
HU: The State Department says the North Korean threat is a top priority for Tillerson's trip. Since President Donald Trump took office, North Korea has twice tested missiles, last week firing four of them into the Sea of Japan. And North Korea observers say Pyongyang appears to be preparing for another rules-breaking nuclear test.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner admits existing approaches to curb Pyongyang haven't worked.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK TONER: Thus far, we've been unable to persuade them either through U.N. action, through sanctions, whatever. So I think we need to look at new possibilities.
HU: New policy approaches are likely if South Korea does indeed vote in a new center-left administration. John Delury.
DELURY: Liberals think you engage North Korea. You draw them out. You have dialogue. You work on denuclearization. But you have to work on a lot of other issues at the same time.
HU: But those who are likely to take charge in South Korea aren't the leaders Tillerson will be meeting with on Friday. He'll instead talk through the North Korean threat and other regional issues with a lame duck South Korean government picked by a president who's no longer there.
DELURY: South Korea has two more months of a political vacuum. There's a lot of tensions. I mean, just from a South Korean perspective, the relationship with China is quite bad over THAAD.
HU: THAAD is a missile defense system the U.S. is installing in South Korea against Chinese objections.
DELURY: The relationship with Japan is bad. And the relationship with the United States is uncertain just because of all the questions around Trump.
HU: Japan and China are the two other countries on Tillerson's Asia trip. And the missile defense system promises to get a hearing from various perspectives on each leg. The State Department says getting cooperation from China, Japan and South Korea is key to trying to slow down North Korea's advancing nuclear program. Toner.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TONER: Everybody agrees on the challenge, which is how do you stop North Korea's bad behavior?
HU: Not everyone agrees on how to solve it. And a main player in the region will soon have a new government, adding another complication to what was already one of the thorniest issues facing the White House. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "TIME EATER - RECOVER")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.