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(3rd LD) ARF kicks off with N. Korea nuke, South China Sea high on agenda

All News 18:45 July 26, 2016

(ATTN: RECASTS headline and updates throughout)

VIENTIANE, July 26 (Yonhap) -- Top diplomats from nearly 30 Asia-Pacific countries and regional powers started their meeting on Tuesday where they will most likely discuss such regional security issues as threats from North Korea and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the largest regional security gathering, was attended by foreign ministers from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and top officials from other parts of Asia, North America, Europe and Oceania.

The ARF is a rare international occasion attended by the North along with all the other countries that were involved in the six-party talks aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

The forum consists of two sessions -- retreat and plenary -- that will kick off in the afternoon at the National Convention Center in the Laotian capital. South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and North Korea's Foreign Minster Ri Yong-ho are to take part in the forum.

The North's nuclear program and territorial disputes over the South China Sea are expected to be high on the agenda.

Keen attention is being placed on what Ri will say during the forum. It is scheduled to last for more than three hours.

Since his arrival here on Sunday, Ri has stayed almost mum, rarely responding to media questions. His attendance at the ARF comes amid heightened tensions caused by the North's repeated missile provocations and rumors that it might be preparing a fifth nuclear test.

On Monday, he and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held bilateral talks where they expressed hopes for better ties between the two countries. This marked the first ARF meeting between the North and China in two years.

Their traditionally close relations have been strained after North Korea's defiant military provocations despite warnings issued by Beijing and China's participation in international sanctions against Pyongyang.

The Ri-Wang talks came as Beijing's ties with South Korea have cooled following the move by Seoul and Washington to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery on the peninsula. China and Russia have both objected to the move, saying that it could undermine their strategic security interests.

In his talks with South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Wang strongly blamed South Korea for hurting the foundation of their trust by pushing to place the missile defense system.

Meanwhile, South Korea has been working hard to reflect its concerns about the North's nuclear and missile development in the chair's statement to be issued after the forum.

The Seoul government has expressed worries that it might be tough this time around to get its views reflected given Laos' close ties with North Korea. Laos is this year's chair country, and ARF observers say the chairmanship is given leeway when writing the statement that will be released following the talks.

A foreign media report said a draft version of the statement includes wording on the THAAD apparently favoring China's stance.

Observers say that it is impossible that such wording will end up in the final version considering all ASEAN decisions are "consensus-based," and South Korea and the United States will strongly oppose its inclusion.

"A draft is made based on opinions forwarded by many countries. So far, none have made direct references to THAAD during the talks under way here," a government source told reporters on condition of anonymity. "It is not appropriate to talk about the wording issue now."


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