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Ms. Condoleezza Rice has just completed her first tour of Asia as U.S. secretary of state. The trip took her to the major capitals of the region — Delhi, Islamabad, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing — as well as to Afghanistan, briefly. At each stop, she confirmed U.S. commitment to the region and pledged to deepen ties with each government she met.

It was an impressive performance, and one that is much appreciated given the value that Asian governments put on face-to-face diplomacy. The trip underscored the challenges the Bush administration faces in its second term, including the most daunting task of all — dealing with North Korea. On this issue, the signs are worrying.

Ms. Rice began in South Asia, reaffirming U.S. determination to improve relations with India and Pakistan, and highlighting Washington’s mutual interests and shared concerns with Delhi and Islamabad. In India, Ms. Rice explained American worries about a proposed pipeline that would bring Iranian energy supplies to the Indian subcontinent — thus extending Tehran’s influence and providing it with much-needed hard currency. In Pakistan, the top U.S. priority is closing down the nuclear black market of Dr. A.Q. Khan. She also found time to stop in Kabul to see firsthand the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since the elections last year.

The second half of the trip focused on East Asia. In South Korea, she applauded the U.S.-South Korea security alliance and repeated Washington’s preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis set off by North Korea’s determination to develop nuclear weapons. In a departure from protocol, Ms. Rice visited a frontline U.S. military headquarters. It is unusual for the secretary of state to make a high-profile stop at a military base. The visit occurred during annual bilateral war games that the North has always protested. Plainly, the visit signaled U.S. resolve in dealing with the North and reminded Pyongyang of who the ultimate guarantors of peace on the Korean Peninsula are: the U.S. and South Korean military forces stationed there.

In Tokyo, topics ranged from the celebration of “the best relations ever” between Japan and the United States to U.S. complaints about the ban on U.S. beef exports due to concerns about mad cow disease. She also expressed support for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In Beijing, her final stop, Ms. Rice expressed U.S. concern over relations between Taiwan and China. She criticized the new law that prohibits secession by Taiwan as “not welcome” and unhelpful. She pushed the Chinese to be more transparent in their military activities, and to strengthen efforts to protect human rights. The release of a high-profile political prisoner on the eve of Ms. Rice’s arrival continued the Chinese tradition of using such detainees for political purposes.

She met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who echoed her desire to build a constructive bilateral relationship and agreed that Taiwan poses a serious threat to regional stability. For him, like the rest of the Beijing leadership, Taipei is responsible for the tensions that punctuate cross-strait relations.

At every stop, Ms. Rice focused on U.S. determination to work with other nations to stem the threat from nuclear proliferation. She emphasized the U.S. commitment to a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis, but gave the first indication by a senior U.S. official that the U.S. is contemplating “using other” more aggressive options to resolve the problem.

It is unclear what the U.S. has in mind; most likely it favors either tightening scrutiny of all North Korean trade to ensure that weapons of mass destruction or their components are not exported, or referring the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Only a united front among the other five nations in the six-party talks will convince North Korea to take those negotiations seriously.

Key to persuading Pyongyang is getting Beijing and Seoul, the main source of economic support for North Korea, to use their leverage against the North. Thus far, both governments have been reluctant to play hardball. They worry about instability on their borders, while China sees relations with Pyongyang as a card to play against Seoul and as a means of getting Washington to respond to Beijing’s concerns about Taiwan.

Ultimately, the choice is North Korea’s. Ms. Rice repeated that the U.S. has no intention of invading or attacking North Korea. Washington is ready to provide security assurances to the North if Pyongyang is ready to negotiate seriously. According to Ms. Rice, it is time for Pyongyang to make “a strategic choice for peace.” Ms. Rice’s tour signaled that the time for that is running out.

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