- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TOKYO | Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought cooperation with Japan and other U.S. trading partners in East Asia on steps to battle the global economic meltdown as she began a four-nation tour of the region Monday.

But her arrival in Japan, coinciding with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s 67th birthday, came amid a new threat from the communist state and kept the region’s nuclear future high on her agenda.

“I will be discussing with them the approaches that each are taking, explaining what we have just done with the passage of our stimulus bill, and seeking greater cooperation about how together we are going to work our way through these very difficult economic times,” Mrs. Clinton said. After Japan, she plans to visit South Korea, China and Indonesia.

She touched down in Tokyo just hours after Japan reported its worst economic contraction in 35 years, with its economy shrinking at an annual rate of more than 12 percent in the final quarter of 2008.

Mrs. Clinton’s first overseas trip as America’s chief diplomat is also the first time in nearly five decades that a secretary of state has chosen Asia for his or her maiden voyage.

“We have to work together to address the global financial crisis,” she said at a welcoming ceremony in Tokyo. Japan’s economic contraction was its worst since 1974. It was also third-straight quarterly contraction in the world’s second-largest economy.

“There is no question that this is the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II,” said Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano. “The outcome clearly shows that Japan’s export-dependent economy has been severely hit.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura called the economic downturn a once-in-a-century disaster.

Mrs. Clinton said the “global economic crisis is the backdrop against which this visit takes place,” noting that it will be also a major issue during her meetings in Indonesia, South Korea and China.

While in Japan, Mrs. Clinton will sign an agreement to move about 8,000 of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan from the island of Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. She also will meet with families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents decades ago to tell them that the U.S. has not forgotten their plight.

“The abductee issue is an issue of grave concern,” she said. “It’s such a human tragedy, and I think all of us can imagine how we would feel if a family member or an entire family that we were connected to in some way just disappeared and were never heard from - and only in recent years have we learned what happened to them.”

The abductee issue prompted Japan to cut off all aid to North Korea and pushed Tokyo to take a hard line in six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear future.

On Sunday, Pyongyang said it was preparing to test a ballistic missile.

Mrs. Clinton said she will seek ways to restart talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

“The North Koreans have already agreed to dismantling” the programs, “and we expect them to fulfill the obligations that they entered into,” she said. “So our position is that when they move forward on presenting a verifiable and complete dismantling and denuclearization, we have a great openness to working with them.”

Mrs. Clinton also welcomed “the decreased tension across the Taiwan Strait and the increasing cooperation that we’ve recently seen” between Beijing and Taipei.

“We obviously want to support and promote that, and I think that the current Chinese government and the current government in Taiwan also have that as an objective,” she said.

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