/ 22 July 2009

Clinton fears N Korea-Burma nuclear links

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned about possible nuclear links between Burma and North Korea on Wednesday, as Washington re-engaged with South-East Asia after years of neglect.

Clinton, who arrived in the Thai resort island of Phuket for Asia’s biggest security forum, said the communist state could be sharing atomic technology with military-ruled Burma, posing a major threat to the region.

She was set to sign a treaty signalling renewed US commitment to South-East Asia and will meet counterparts from China, Russia, Japan and South Korea for talks on restarting their stalled dialogue with Pyongyang.

”We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology” from North Korea to Burma’s repressive ruling junta, 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 South-East Asian Nations (Asean) and at the broader Asean Regional Forum.

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 six-party 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 South-East 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.

Suspicions about Burma and North Korea escalated after a US Navy destroyer last month began tracking a suspect North Korean ship reportedly heading for Burma under new UN sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s weapons programme.

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.

Great importance
Clinton headed into talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shortly after flying from Bangkok to Phuket. Details of their discussions were not immediately available.

In Phuket, Clinton was later set to sign a so-called treaty of amity and cooperation with Asean, a move designed to offset China’s growing influence over the region.

Clinton said US President Barack Obama’s administration wants to send a strong message of engagement after the region was neglected by his predecessor, George Bush, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

China inked the same treaty with the 10-country Asean six years ago.

”We give great importance to this region,” Clinton said on Thai television. ”We have to deal with everything from pandemic disease to piracy … the United States has to be involved in this region.”

Clinton, meanwhile, said that Asean should consider expelling Burma over its rights record if it does not free jailed 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.

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.

Outside the region, Clinton said that the United States was ready to help its Gulf allies establish a ”defence umbrella” if Iran does not back down over its nuclear programme.

The Obama administration has taken steps toward engaging not just Iran, but other US foes like Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, even as its hopes of bringing North Korea to the table have stumbled. — AFP