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All Headlines 11:05 July 23, 2009


Regional Powers Discuss N. Korea Nukes at ARF in Thailand

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- While the six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear ambitions have been stalled for months, the denuclearization issue emerged as a top agenda item at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Phuket, Thailand. But as foreign ministers from the international disarmament talks gathered on the resort island, North Korea's top diplomat failed to appear, with Pyongyang being represented instead by Pak Kun-gwang, a lower-level ambassador.

Top diplomats from the five dialogue partners involved in the six-way talks -- the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- held a series of bilateral meetings on July 22, in which they delivered a clear message to Pyongyang that it must cease provocations or face more U.N. sanctions.

The annual security forum is led by the 10-member group of Southeast Asian nations. More than a dozen other members of the ARF attends the meeting that opens July 23.

In their brief talks on the eve of the ARF opening, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton agreed to continue diplomatic efforts to bring North Korea back to the six-way talks. They also agreed on the importance of fully implementing the U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Pyongyang for its second nuclear test.

At a news conference, Clinton said the U.S. government is willing to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea if the communist nation scraps its nuclear arsenal in a "complete and irreversible" way. Clinton's comments marked her clearest message yet to North Korea on what it will gain from a strategic decision to denuclearize and what it will lose in case of continued defiance.

A delegation of five North Korean officials arrived in Phuket on July 21. Ri Tong-il, director of the disarmament department of the North's foreign ministry, reportedly said a meeting with the U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would "depend on the situation." Ri is apparently serving as spokesman for the North's delegation led by Amb. Pak, who has served as North Korea's ambassador to Namibia and several other African countries.

Whether North Korea and the U.S. will hold a bilateral meeting during the ARF remains unclear. The forum has often served as the venue for high-level contacts between North Korea and the U.S. in the past, but the North's decision to send a lower-level official as its chief representative disappointed host Thailand and other participants who expected a breakthrough in stalled efforts to bring the North back to the negotiating table. This year's session is likely to focus on North Korea, Myanmar, and the latest bomb attacks on two U.S.-owned hotels in Jakarta.

The Thai government asked Pyongyang to send its foreign minister, Pak Ui-Chun, to the forum, saying it could provide a chance for Pak to explain his nation's recent actions, including its second nuclear test on May 25, and discuss future steps on the issue. In response to media reports that the North is not sending its foreign minister to this year's ARF, the U.S. said earlier it has no plan for a separate meeting with the North Korean delegation.

Clinton described North Korea's leaders as "unruly teenagers," citing their continued provocations that she said were apparently aimed at grabbing attention. "What we've seen is this constant demand for attention," Clinton said in an interview that aired on ABC's "Good Morning America" shortly before she flew to Thailand from India.

Diplomatic sources, however, say U.S. officials may decide to meet the North Korean delegates in an effort to win the release of two American journalists detained in North Korea. Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the U.S. media group Current TV were arrested in March near the China-North Korea border while on a trip to report on North Korean defectors. They were convicted of "great crimes" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

The ARF, one of the few international meetings in which the North participates, has in the past provided a chance for high-level meetings between the two sides outside of the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. In the previous session in Singapore last year, Pak had an unprecedented six-party meeting with his counterparts from other members of the talks. In 2004, then North Korean Foreign Minister Paik Nam-sun held a 20-minute bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during the ARF held in Jakarta. In 2003, however, North Korea sent Ho Jong, an ambassador-at-large, to the ARF session in Cambodia amid a standoff with Washington. Ho is now Pyongyang's ambassador to Kuwait.

Meanwhile, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan used a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda, earlier on July 21 to thank Southeast Asian nations for sending a resolute message to North Korea during their latest gathering, according to Moon Tae-young, spokesman for Seoul's delegation. Foreign ministers from the 10 ASEAN member countries criticized the North's recent underground nuclear test and missile launches. "We urged the DPRK (North Korea) to fully comply with its obligations and relevant UNSC (sanctions) resolutions," they said in the Joint Communique of the 42nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting issued on July 20 here.

"We also urged all concerned parties to return to the six-party talks process as soon as possible and fully implement their commitments made in previous rounds of the six-party talks, which remain the main mechanism for achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," the statement read.

The countries initially sought to hold a six-way foreign ministerial meeting involving North Korea to seek ways to break the stalemate that has deepened since the communist state's recent missile and nuclear tests. The U.N. Security Council responded to those actions by slapping Pyongyang with tougher sanctions. In the North's absence, a proposed alternative was to organize a five-way gathering without the North. China, Pyongyang's closest ally and host of the six-party talks, has opposed the idea and South Korean officials said a five-way meeting is unlikely to be held at the regional forum.

"Instead, the five parties will be able to consult on North Korea through bilateral meetings," said a Seoul foreign ministry official accompanying Minister Yu. The U.S. secretary plans to hold separate meetings with the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and Russia, he added.

Clinton has made clear that she has no plans to meet bilaterally with North Korean officials on the sidelines of the security forum. But other U.S. officials may do so in an effort to win the release of the two American journalists detained in North Korea, according to diplomatic sources.

Despite Clinton's remarks, speculation lingers over the possibility of North Korea's head delegate, Ambassador Pak Kun-gwang, meeting with Clinton one-on-one at the behest of host nation Thailand or China. Kim Yong-nam, North Korea's ceremonial head of state and concurrently president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, said last week that the six-party talks "came to a permanent end" because the U.S. and others refused to respect North Korea's "sovereign rights."

Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to scrap the talks unless the United Nations apologizes for the sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear and missile tests. Under U.N. Resolution 1874 was adopted in early June after North Korea's second nuclear test on May 25. The U.N. Security Council also slapped fresh sanction on the North by making five of its officials and as many North Korean firms subject to a travel ban and imposing an asset freeze for their involvement in nuclear and missile development programs.

The resolution also bans the North from any further nuclear and ballistic missile tests and imposes financial sanctions, an overall arms embargo and cargo interdictions to head off the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by the North.

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