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(2nd LD) S. Korea's FM Yun leaves for Laos to attend ASEAN meetings

All News 17:40 July 23, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES headline, lead, 7th para with new info)
By Koh Byung-joon

VIENTIANE, July 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se left for Laos late Saturday to join a series of regional meetings led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), diplomatic sources said.

Yun will arrive in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on Sunday and start his meetings with his ASEAN counterparts in the days to come, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), according to the sources.

The ARF, which is scheduled for Tuesday, is the highlight of this year's gathering, as it will provide a platform for 27 countries including 10 ASEAN members, the EU and even North Korea to discuss regional security issues.

The forum is a rare international occasion attended by all of the countries involved in the long-halted six-party talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear ambitions.

North Korea's repeated provocations of pursuing nuclear and missile programs and territorial spats in the South China Sea are expected to be high on the agenda.

On the sidelines, Yun will hold bilateral meetings with other participating countries.

Sources said that South Korea is fine-tuning its schedules for bilateral talks with China, Japan and the United States. It is currently seeking to hold such talks with 15 other countries as well, including Myanmar, Laos, Australia and Vietnam.

The ASEAN meetings come amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula prompted by the North's recent missile tests in defiance of warnings by the international community. Speculation is also mounting that Pyongyang is preparing a fifth nuclear test, following the fourth one conducted in January this year.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will soon arrive in Laos to join the ARF, the sources said, adding that he would come to Laos via China.

Earlier, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported that Ri has departed Pyongyang to make a trip to the security forum. He is likely to arrive in Vientiane later on Sunday, the report said, citing officials with knowledge of the situation.

The Japanese news wire said that one of the officials who saw him off in Pyongyang included China's Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun, which some say could be an indication that the two allies could have bilateral talks on the sidelines of the forum.

The North's state media later confirmed Ri's departure for Laos.

This would mark his first debut on a multilateral diplomatic stage since taking office in May.

Ri is known to be open-minded and lean toward dialogue, an assessment that raised expectations that his appointment as the foreign minister might be signaling that the reclusive country would try to engage the U.S. and other countries in talks.

South Korea remains firm in its stance not to hold talks with the North unless it shows meaningful changes on its attitude on denuclearization.

"We currently have no plans to have contact with the North," a government official said on the customary condition of anonymity.


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