TOKYO, Feb. 17, 2009 -- The United States wants to listen and learn, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with ABC News, reaffirming one of President Obama's messages to the world.
But on her first overseas tour as secretary of state and in her first interviews with the media, she also warned North Korea not to advance its nuclear program -- an apparent reversal of her comments to reporters on the way to Japan that she sought "openness" with Pyongyang. Clinton also expressed concern over the growing threat of terrorism in Pakistan.
In her first television interviews, Clinton appeared to speak more in thought points than talking points, avoiding the appearance of repeating memorized lines while still sticking to the administration's message.
Clinton arrived in Tokyo Monday to begin an Asia trip that will include stops in China, South Korea and Indonesia.
Traveling across the region, Clinton got a look at the world of problems she faces.
A UN report released Monday said the number of Afghan civilians killed in armed conflict rose 40 percent in 2008 -- with 39 percent of the deaths caused by U.S., NATO and Afghan forces -- as the Afghan war grew increasingly bloody. In Pakistan, the government struck a peace deal with Taliban-linked groups who now control the picturesque Swat valley, but in return the Pakistani government agreed to militants' demands to impose strict Islamic Shariah law, a move likely to draw criticism from the United States.
And in Tokyo, Clinton's arrival was marked by the steepest quarterly contraction in Japan's economy in 35 years, as the country's finance minister quit after appearing to be drunk during a G-7 meeting last weekend.
The Global Economic Crisis
This is the first time since 1961 a U.S. secretary of state has put East Asia first on his or her travel agenda, reflecting the importance placed on reversing the global recession.
Clinton said the United States intends to work closely with Japan, the second-largest economy in the world.
"I hope that we'll be able to lay the groundwork for the turnaround," she said in the interview with ABC News in Tokyo Monday.
As for why she thinks the foreign minister resigned, Clinton called it an "internal decision" on the part of the Japanese government.
"But there are a lot of very able people in the finance ministry and the government and the private sector who I know will be working hard to make sure their efforts at recovery continue," she said.
Clinton also seconded comments made by Dennis Blair, who, at his hearing to become director of U.S. national intelligence, said that the global financial crisis is a critical near-term security concern.
"Yes, we have to look at this as part of our threat matrix," the secretary of state said. "I know some people have criticized him and said, 'what does the economy have to do with terrorism.' That's a very short-sided view. I think what director Blair was saying is that we get fixated sometimes on the headlines of dangers, and that is not in any way to underestimate the continuing threat from terrorism, the instability in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere."
"But this economic crisis, left unresolved, will create massive unemployment," she said. "It will upend governments, it will unfortunately breed instability, and I appreciated his putting that into the context of the threat matrix."
The South Asia Problem
In linking the economic downturn to instability, Clinton singled out Pakistan, where Taliban-linked militants have taken control of the frontier region along the border with Afghanistan, and of the once-tourist haven Swat.
"... Look at Pakistan, a country that we know has to be stabilized for the benefit of not only South Asia, but beyond," Clinton said. "It is where the terrorists and their allies have found haven. But the economy in Pakistan is under even greater pressure now because of the global economic crisis. If Pakistan becomes even more unstable, that increases the danger we will face by the extremists to the Pakistan government."
Asked about reports of shariah law being imposed in the Swat valley as part of a peace deal between the government and militants, and Pakistani officials saying that the government will not undertake any more offensive attacks on militants, Clinton said there have been some "contradictory reports" and that she wants to "get the whole picture" before commenting.
"Look, the entire situation in Pakistan is a concern," she said. "That is why we are looking at a policy review at Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Obama last week announced the White House review, to be led by Brookings Institution senior fellow and former CIA official Bruce Riedel. The U.S. government's appointed special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke, recently visited Pakistan, Afghanistan and India to assess the situation in the region.
Softness With North Korea?
Clinton denied that the Obama administration is taking a softer stance than the Bush administration on North Korea, which may test-fire a missile soon, according to intelligence reports.
U.S. officials have said they want to keep the lines of communication open, but Clinton reaffirmed that the United States remains "absolutely committed to the denuclearization of North Korea."
"North Korea entered into an agreement to do that, and if they proceed as they had already agreed, and verifiably and completely eliminate their nuclear programs, there are benefits. That's a quid pro quo," the secretary of state said.
"And they need to understand that, because very often what you hear out of North Korea is that the continuing antagonism toward the United States, toward Japan, toward South Korea, holds the regime together. But I want the people of North Korea, as well as those within the government, to understand, we hold no antagonism for the people of North Korea ..."
Clinton Remains Optimistic
But amid the myriad of challenges facing the new administration, America's top diplomat remains optimistic.
"It's a wonderful experience to represent the United States of America. ... as a representative of the Obama administration with a message that the United States wants to listen and learn," she said. "We believe we have a lot to do in cooperation both regionally and globally with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China and we are open to an expanded and deepened partnership."
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso will visit Washington D.C., next week, becoming the first world leader to be hosted by President Obama at the White House.