By Jill Dougherty
Secretary of State John Kerry embarks on his Asian trip at a critical time, flying to South Korea just as North Korea is threatening to launch missiles. When he arrives in Seoul on Friday, he will be only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.
Kerry already has warned the North on what he calls leader Kim Jong Un's "provocative ... dangerous, reckless" rhetoric and actions. Since that comment more than a week ago, he has said little in public, however. The first part of this 10-day international trip - to Turkey and Israel - was focused on the Middle East peace process and Syria.
Even if those are complex, thorny issues, they are subjects with which Kerry is more familiar. As a senator and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he did not travel extensively in Asia and does not have the extensive list of friends among Asian leaders that he has in Europe and the Middle East.
There is a new president in South Korea, and she appears to be growing exasperated at Pyongyang's latest moves. Park Geun-hye, nevertheless, remains open to building a trusting relationship with North Korea, her foreign minister says, but Seoul will respond to provocations from Pyongyang.
Kerry's task will be to stand shoulder to shoulder with South Korea without trying to raise the temperature with North Korea even more.
And he will also visit China and Japan. China, U.S. officials say, is growing more concerned about the North's provocations, but it also is closely watching Washington's latest military moves in the region, which are meant as a warning to North Korea.
Pyongyang's provocations are the immediate threat, but the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" has broader strategic implications for Beijing.
Throughout his Asia swing, Kerry will have to balance his short-term and long-term diplomatic objectives. As Daniel Twining, the German Marshall Fund's senior fellow for Asia, said, "Secretary Kerry can reassure regional states that, as a Pacific century dawns, the United States will continue to be right in the middle of it and will not allow any power to edge the United States out of a region where nearly every country welcomes its leadership. He should also make clear that the United States will not countenance aggression against any territory covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and commit to working closely with Japan to meet security challenges across Asia, starting with North Korea."