US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta embarks Sunday on a tour of Asia to take the pulse of key allies as Washington prepares for rare direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear program.
In his first trip to the region since taking over the Pentagon in July, the former CIA director will begin with a stop in Indonesia before heading to Japan on Monday and South Korea on Wednesday.
The trip coincides with sensitive direct talks between the United States and North Korea in Geneva next week to try to lay the ground for reviving long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations.
Before any broader discussions, the United States and South Korea are insisting the North take concrete steps to demonstrate it is sincere about resuming the full six-party nuclear dialogue with Japan, Russia and China.
In meetings in Tokyo and Seoul, Panetta “will have an opportunity to discuss with his counterparts where we are in the diplomatic process,” a senior defense official said.
The defense chiefs will examine what steps to take to bolster diplomacy, but also insure that they are prepared, should North Korea “choose to undertake a provocation,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We are essentially exploring the proposition and trying to ascertain if the North Koreans are serious about engaging in nuclear diplomacy and serious about living up to their commitments under the six-party process,” the official said.
In April 2009, the North formally quit the six-party forum, a month before staging its second atomic weapons test. In 2010, Pyongyang torpedoed and sank a South Korean ship and unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island.
Apart from diplomacy focused on North Korea, Panetta’s talks in Tokyo are expected to cover missile defense plans, potential US arms sales and the controversial future of the US Futenma air base on the island of Okinawa.
The Pentagon chief also will hold talks with defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the sidelines of the bloc’s meeting in Bali.
Disputes between ASEAN members and China over the resource-rich South China Sea will likely feature high on the agenda.