(ATTN: ADDS Seoul official's remarks, details in paras 11-12; AMENDS dateline)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to embark on a trip to Asia on Sunday to discuss major challenges in the region, including China and North Korea, with two key U.S. allies there -- Japan and South Korea.
The top U.S. diplomat will first visit Tokyo where he will be joined by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for a Two-Plus-Two meeting with their Japanese counterparts.
Austin left Saturday for a stop in Hawaii before his trip to Japan.
Both Blinken and Austin will visit South Korea beginning Wednesday for talks with their counterparts there that will also include a Two-Plus-Two meeting.
The State Department has said the secretaries will discuss a wide range of regional and global issues while visiting the two key U.S. allies in Asia, including how to deal with North Korea.
The U.S. is currently undergoing a comprehensive review of its North Korea policy that it says will create a new and different approach toward the North from those in the past.
A senior U.S. diplomat said Blinken's trip to Asia will provide an important chance for U.S. allies to put their input into the U.S.' policy toward North Korea.
"Because we want to make sure to incorporate their input as we review all of the important aspects of our North Korea policy, and, in fact, when the secretary is in the region, I think this will be another great opportunity for our allies to provide senior-level input into our process," Sung Kim, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said earlier.
Kim said the review will likely be completed within weeks.
The Biden administration has yet to publicly offer any direct message to Pyongyang since coming into office on Jan. 20, but an earlier report said the new U.S. administration has made several behind-the-scenes attempts to reach out to the North, although unsuccessfully so far.
Citing a senior official at the Biden administration, Reuters reported that the U.S. had tried to make diplomatic attempts since mid-February.
A senior official at South Korea's foreign ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington had informed Seoul of the attempts in advance.
A request to the State Department to confirm the report was not immediately answered.
The State Department said the U.S. secretaries will also discuss how to jointly deal with what it calls increasing "competition" from China.
Blinken's first overseas trip as secretary comes after President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever summit of a regional forum known as the Quad, which under the former Trump administration was largely viewed as an anti-China coalition of countries that currently include Australia, India and Japan.
The Biden administration is seeking to shift the main focus of the grouping from any single country or issue in an apparent hope of attracting more U.S. allies and partners to the regional forum.
"Of course, a coordinated approach to China is one of the elements that will be on the agenda in both countries," State Department spokesman Ned Price has said of Blinken's trip to Japan and Asia.
"China, at the same time, is not going to dominate the agenda."
Blinken will wrap up his Seoul visit on Thursday to head for Alaska, where he and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are set to meet with their Chinese counterparts.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said the U.S.-China talks were specifically scheduled to come after the top U.S. diplomat first had a chance to coordinate U.S. policy toward China with the two key U.S. allies in Asia.
"It was important to us that this administration's first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil, and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe," she said earlier.
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