Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, embarking on her first trip as the nation’s chief diplomat, promised again Sunday to engage Chinese leaders on the sensitive topic of human rights, even though she will not be meeting with rights activists during her visit.
Clinton, who was to arrive in Japan this evening at the start of an Asian tour, told reporters on her plane that she would “not be shying away” from human rights issues. “But we have a very broad agenda to deal with,” she said.
Chinese leaders have often resisted American efforts to discuss the rights of their citizens. Giving the topic too much emphasis would risk disrupting conversations on other subjects, including the global financial crisis, the top concern of world leaders.
But in asserting that she intends to continue to press the issue with Beijing, Clinton’s comment suggested that she wants to bring up human rights, but in a way that won’t threaten her crucial first meeting with the leadership.
Clinton has been under pressure from activists. Seven human rights organizations wrote her a letter this week to urge that she give the subject prominence.
Clinton will be meeting with Chinese women and members of civic organizations, and aides have said that the subject of human rights was likely to come up in private conversations with them.
Speaking about North Korea, Clinton questioned the extent to which Pyongyang has undertaken a uranium-based nuclear weapons effort, as the Bush administration contended when it backed out of a denuclearization deal during former President Bush’s first term.
She said there was a “debate within the intelligence community” about the existence of the program and the danger it posed.
North Korea has long operated a plutonium reprocessing program. It suspended that program as part of a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration. But the Bush administration’s 2002 accusation that Pyongyang also was operating a uranium enrichment program scuttled the deal and prompted North Korea to resume reprocessing plutonium.
Clinton also said North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the past were “an issue of grave concern.”
Clinton is visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China during this trip.