Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Clinton fears NKorea-Burma nuclear link

(Bangkok Post) -US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concerns on Wednesday that North Korea could be sharing nuclear technology with Burma, posing a worrying new threat to regional security.

Clinton issued the warning as she arrived in the Thai resort island of Phuket for a major security forum at which the United States was to sign a treaty signalling its renewed commitment to Southeast Asia.

She was due to meet her counterparts from Russia, China, Japan and South Korea for talks later Wednesday on restarting their stalled multilateral dialogue with Pyongyang over its increasingly aggressive nuclear programme.

"We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology" from Stalinist North Korea to military-ruled Burma, Clinton said in an interview with Thailand's Nation TV.

On Tuesday, she said Washington was taking "very seriously" reports of conventional military cooperation between the two pariah states, adding that it would be "destabilising for the region."

Burma and North Korea, both isolated and under international sanctions, are set to dominate Clinton's two days of discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and broader Asean Regional Forum.

Clinton was later set to sign a friendship pact with Southeast Asia in a sign of Washington's renewed interest to the region after nearly a decade in which it has been distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After arriving in Thailand Tuesday from New Delhi, Clinton said President Barack Obama's administration wants to send a strong message of engagement with the region after it was neglected by his predecessor George W. Bush.

US influence over Asean has been largely supplanted by China, which inked the same treaty with the 10-country bloc six years ago.

US officials said a key thrust of Clinton's debut at the forum would be to crank up pressure on North Korea to return to the nuclear disarmament talks after its recent missile and nuclear weapons tests.

North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun declined to attend the meeting, instead sending a roving ambassador to Phuket, and Southeast Asian officials say the Pyongyang delegation is concerned about coming under pressure.

Asean had asked China to play a key role in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, a Thai official said after the bloc's foreign ministers met their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea on Wednesday.

Washington is currently focused on implementing tough new UN sanctions, but officials said the US and its allies were ready to offer incentives to Pyongyang if it changed course -- something they did not expect any time soon.

Suspicions about military cooperation between Burma and North Korea escalated after a US Navy destroyer last month began tracking a suspect North Korean ship that was reportedly heading for Burma.

The vessel came under scrutiny under new UN sanctions designed to punish Pyongyang over its recent underground nuclear test and a series of rocket launches including a long-range projectile.

Separately, a group of exiled Burma activists last month released pictures of what they said was a secret network of tunnels built by North Korean experts inside Burma.

Clinton, meanwhile, also expressed concerns about the rights record of Burma, which has been slapped with US sanctions for its detention of political prisoners including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma has sparked outrage by putting the Nobel Peace Prize winner on trial over an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house.

Clinton said Wednesday in her television interview that expelling Burma from Asean "would be an appropriate policy change to consider" if the ruling junta does not release Aung San Suu Kyi.

Obama has described the court proceedings as a "show trial", while talk of a revised US policy towards Burma has been on hold since the trial began.


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