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World

Rex Tillerson Travels To Asia Amid North Korea Tensions

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Rex Tillerson sets off this week on his first trip to Asia as secretary of state. He'll be traveling light. He's not taking the usual entourage. But he's got a large task ahead of him. He's going to Japan, South Korea and China. And in each place, he'll be talking about how to respond to North Korea and its missile tests. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Tillerson has been camera shy since coming to office, and that continues this week. He's not taking the normal press corps along with him. He also doesn't have much of his staff in place. The Trump administration has yet to name anyone to run Asia policy at the department. So acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton will accompany him.

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SUSAN THORNTON: This trip will allow Secretary Tillerson to engage allies and partners on not only a range of bilateral issues but also, importantly, to discuss and coordinate strategy to address the advancing nuclear missile threat from North Korea.

KELEMEN: She's a career diplomat and was careful not to get ahead of the Trump administration's policy reviews as she spoke to international reporters here. Thornton also brushed off concerns that by keeping such a low profile, Tillerson doesn't look influential in Washington.

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THORNTON: He's been very busy in the time since trying to sort of get up to speed and have a lot of these different issues that all of the administration and Cabinet officials are looking at and reviewing, got the State Department's press briefing back up online now. And I think you're going to start to see more and more engagement from us.

KELEMEN: But these optics matter in Asia, according to Jon Wolfsthal, who worked on North Korea in the previous administration. He says many there are asking the same thing we are.

JON WOLFSTHAL: Does Tillerson speak for the president? It's not clear that he does. At this point, it's not even clear that Tillerson speaks publicly. And so we just don't know what role he plays in the Trump administration. And I think even the president's own advisers apparently don't speak for the president very accurately until he tweets and we know what he thinks.

KELEMEN: And there are a lot of jitters in Asia these days because of the North Korean missile tests and the political vacuum in South Korea with the president's impeachment. He says Tillerson will have to reassure nervous allies.

WOLFSTHAL: Secretary Tillerson is there to show the flag and say, don't worry; we're with you. But there are going to be a lot of questions asked of him for which he doesn't have answers.

KELEMEN: Policies are still under review, and Wolfsthal says there are not a lot of great options to deal with North Korea. He admits the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience didn't work. The U.S. is still trying to get China to use its influence with Pyongyang. The State Department says that continues to be one of the Trump administration's goals. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ JAZZY JEFF SONG, "COME ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.