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Tensions over N.Korea overshadow US, Asia security meet

International Desk |
Update: 2010-07-15 15:26:22

HANOI:  Tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship will overshadow the Asia`Pacific`s largest security forum when it convenes in Vietnam next week, diplomats and observers said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join her counterparts from 27 countries and blocs including China, Russia and the European Union for the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on Friday.

South Korea has said it wants the forum to condemn North Korea for a torpedo attack which broke the corvette in two in March with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang vehemently denies involvement and says it is ready to retaliate if it is punished.

Diplomats said the ARF would be under "very strong pressure" to address the issue after the UN Security Council condemned the attack but did not apportion blame `` a result hailed by the North as a "great diplomatic victory".
"We have to say something," an Asian diplomat said.

But with North Korea, China and Russia on one side of the table and South Korea and the United States on the other, the ARF was in a "sort of headlock" over the wording of any statement, the diplomat said.
"I feel there will be sparks," he added.
Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates will pay their respects to the dead South Korean sailors during a visit to Seoul`s war memorial on Wednesday.
The allies also plan a naval exercise as a show of strength. Seoul said the drill would takes place in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) rather than sensitive Yellow Sea, partly as a concession to China.

Vietnam said North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui`Chun was expected to attend the ARF talks, which also include US allies Australia and Japan.
Permanent Security Council members China and Russia ensured the UN`s July 9 statement was "very soft and indirect," contrary to what Washington and Seoul had urged, University of Sydney Korean studies lecturer Leonid Petrov said.
China and Russia have not publicly accused the North of sinking the warship, despite an investigation by the United States, South Korea and other countries which found strong evidence of a North Korean torpedo attack.
Diplomats and analysts said that while the ARF is likely to comment on the sinking of the Cheonan `` possibly by referring to the UN statement or using similar language `` it was unlikely to blame Pyongyang.

Communist Vietnam, which will chair the meeting, has major business links with South Korea but sees the North as an ideological ally.

"Hanoi will try not to antagonise Pyongyang unnecessarily but also should not shy away from some comment," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS research institute in Hawaii.

International Crisis Group analyst Daniel Pinkston said he expected the foreign ministers to play down the issue, "considering the format and decision`making process at the ARF".

The UN statement gives the forum "a plausible reason for avoiding it", he said.
Critics have dismissed the ARF as a "talk shop" with little influence on the region`s many conflicts `` from Kashmir to the South China Sea and the southern Philippines `` except as a vehicle for confidence`building between nations.

The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) `` whose foreign ministers meet in Hanoi from Monday `` form the core of the ARF and have a principle of non`interference in each other`s affairs.

In the wake of the UN statement, nuclear`armed North Korea said it was willing in principle to return to multilateral disarmament talks which it abandoned last year.

North Korea can be expected to make more efforts at the ARF to "mend bridges" with Washington and perhaps Seoul, while believing it can "continue extorting concessions and aid," Petrov said.

"But it`s not going to lead anywhere unless North Korea undertakes a major reform. Pyongyang doesn`t understand this."

A "wild card" with the potential to colour next week`s meetings is Myanmar, the military`ruled member of ASEAN which, along with North Korea, is under UN sanctions.

Al Jazeera television last month alleged North Korea was helping Myanmar`s ruling generals to begin a nuclear weapons programme, prompting Washington to raise concerns about "growing military ties" between the two countries.

Myanmar denies the allegations.
BDST: 9:35 HRS, 16 July 201

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