U.S. secretary of state to visit Korea

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U.S. secretary of state to visit Korea

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is planning trips to Korea and China next month amid ongoing tension in Northeast Asia, according to various diplomatic sources.

During his visits to Seoul and Beijing, the American statesman is expected to focus on issues surrounding North Korea as well as ongoing historical and territorial disputes in the region.

In addition, Kerry may likely address the detainment of Korean-American tour operator Kenneth Bae, who has been held in North Korea for more than a year now.

On Monday, Bae’s family told the Voice of America that Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, and mother will meet with Kerry on Tuesday at the State Department in Washington, D.C., where they will appeal to Washington to step up its role in securing his release.

Chung said that so far there were no updates about a special envoy being sent to Pyongyang. Kerry’s Asia trip is not expected to include Japan, however. He visited Tokyo in October with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, where the two nations reaffirmed their defense alliance.

Some analysts have speculated that U.S. officials may be sending a message to Japan following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last month.

Washington was quick in expressing its disappointment with Japan after Abe’s trip on Dec. 26 to the shrine, which honors the war dead and houses 14 World War II Class-A criminals.

In an interview published last week in the Asahi Shimbun, Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, also criticized the prime minister’s actions, expressing “disappointment” in his decision to visit the shrine while being fully aware that such a move would result in a backlash from Seoul and Beijing.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that U.S. officials are seeking assurances from Japan that Abe won’t revisit Yasukuni and that the country will once again acknowledge its wartime aggressions to ease its strained relationships with its neighbors.

However, Jen Psaki, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, denied those reports in a Monday press briefing.

“We have always said that we want Japan and its neighbors to deal with sensitive issues constructively and through dialogue,” she said. “But it is inaccurate [to say] that we are seeking private assurances.”

Kerry invited Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se to Washington earlier this month, his first overseas trip in 2014. According to Korean officials, Washington’s invitation was unexpected, but it is a confirmation of the strong alliance between the United States and Korea.

Korean officials have conveyed to Washington through various channels - including Yun’s visit - its displeasure with Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s refusal to look history square in the face.

Kerry is just one of several senior U.S. officials who have visited Korea in recent weeks.

Daniel R. Russel, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, made a one-day stopover in Seoul on Sunday, wrapping up his Asia tour. Likewise, William J. Burns, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, visited Seoul before heading to Beijing and Tokyo last week.

A senior Korean official said that Burns’s visiting Seoul first “was a sign of courtesy” and added that Korean officials were able to convey to him their disappointment in Japan’s denial of its wartime aggressions.

Washington’s top six-party envoy Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, will hold talks with South Korean officials today as part of a three-country trip that includes Korea.

U.S. President Barack Obama is also slated to visit Asia in the spring. Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, indicated in a speech last November that a trip to the continent is in the works for April.

Rice did not specify which countries Obama would visit. The president is not expected to visit China, however, as he will attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing later in the year.

In October, Obama was scheduled to visit the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, though those plans were canceled because of the 16-day federal government shutdown.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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