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On Asia Tour, U.S. Secretary Of State Blinken Meets With Local Journalists


While visiting Asia last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin tried to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. is back and that it values them. Blinken also talked to some local journalists, who asked him hard questions. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: U.S. embassies in Tokyo and Seoul both held virtual events billed as roundtables for emerging voices in journalism. The voices were young, mostly of people in their 20s and 30s. One of them belonged to Miko Jojima, a reporter for the Tokyo Broadcasting System. She asked Secretary Blinken about a topic she covers.

MIKO JOJIMA: I asked him about the Olympics. And as you know, there are so many problems they're facing.

KUHN: One problem is that polls show about 80% of Japanese think the games should be postponed or cancelled. Blinken deferred to his hosts on this.

JOJIMA: He answered that he will support whatever decision the government of Japan makes. So he couldn't say much about that.

KUHN: She says Blinken brought up the issue of press freedoms and spoke respectfully to the journalists, which Jojima said was a pleasant surprise after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who singled out his media critics for retribution.

JOJIMA: Sadly, in Japan, when we do our job, there are some people in authority that gives us pressures.

KUHN: Blinken also brought up press freedoms at a similar roundtable in Seoul. But Noh Ji-won, a reporter for the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper, found that a bit odd, as South Korea is generally seen as having one of the freest presses in East Asia.

NOH JI-WON: It sounded like, yes, that's true, and that's very good comments. But so what (laughter)?

KUHN: Noh asked about North Korea, but Blinken said he was in Seoul to listen to South Korea. The Biden administration is still conducting a review of North Korea policy to decide its next moves. In Tokyo and Seoul, Blinken repeatedly called out China for what he called coercive and authoritarian behavior. Noh says this put South Korea's government in a tough spot.

NOH: I heard that South Korean foreign ministry was quite embarrassed about the minister's remarks on China and North Korea, like, before they make the joint statement.

KUHN: South Korean officials made no public mention of China, and given their delicate diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing, Noh says they really couldn't. She adds that Washington is trying to enlist allies Seoul and Tokyo to help manage China. The allies realize Washington will expect them to do more, and they expect Washington to do more for them in exchange.

NOH: If the U.S. consider us as a really good ally, they have to consider our situation.

KUHN: As a journalist, Noh just hopes that next time U.S. officials invite her to a roundtable, she'll get more time to ask questions.

NOH: One thing I can say is that it was a good start.

KUHN: Judging from the local press reaction, U.S. allies in Asia generally see Blinken's visit as a good start, and they're relieved that the U.S. is back. The question is, for how long will it be back, and what can it accomplish on North Korea and China in that time? Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "OCEANICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.