Tuesday, July 21, 2009

North Korea Ties to Myanmar Draw Clinton’s Attention

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Asian countries should have a “united front” against signs of clandestine military cooperation and nuclear ties between North Korea and Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of StateHillary Clinton said in Thailand today.

“We do worry” about reports that Myanmar and North Korea are cooperating on nuclear technology, Clinton told reporters in Bangkok before heading to the resort island of Phuket for a regional security summit. “I’m not saying it is happening but we want to be prepared to stand against it,” she said.

The U.S. and its Asian allies are on alert for suspected proliferation of conventional or nuclear materials by North Korea. The U.S. Navy recently followed the Kang Nam I, a North Korean freighter that was headed in the direction of Myanmar with unknown cargo. The ship turned around and returned home earlier this month.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously in June to adopt a U.S.-backed resolution to punish North Korea for its May 25 nuclear test. The measure seeks to curb loans and money transfers to North Korea and step up inspection of cargoes suspected of containing material that might contribute to the development of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.

Nuclear Suspicions

Some proliferation experts and Myanmar dissidents say Myanmar’s secretive military regime is trying to develop nuclear weapons, allegations that have gained currency with the release last month of 800 photographs of purported tunnels in the country built with North Korean assistance.

“It would be destabilizing for the region, it would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors,” Clinton said last night following a meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. She used Myanmar’s former name.

A South Korean intelligence official quoted by the Associated Press said satellite imagery of the Kang Nam suggested nuclear-related cargo. U.S. officials have suggested the shipment may have been artillery or small arms.

‘Comply Fully’

Japan expects Myanmar to “comply fully” with United Nations sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test and missile launches, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama said today. The country is “not aware” of any links of military cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar, he said.

“We expect Myanmar to also comply fully with the newly adopted UN Security Council resolution,” Kodama told reporters in Phuket. “We will continue to have a discussion with Myanmar, including on the issue” of North Korea, he said.

Clinton called reports that the U.S. may be willing to offer North Korea a package of incentives to encourage its leaders to return to stalled talks about dismantling its own nuclear weapons program a “misinterpretation.”

“The United States stands ready to work with North Korea if and only if and when they are ready to resume” talks about complete denuclearization, she said.

“There is obviously a list of incentives and offers that could be made if the North Koreans evidence any willingness to take a different path than the one they are currently pursuing,” Clinton said. So far, “we have not seen that evidence.”

Economic Aid

Before diplomacy with North Korea foundered last year, the impoverished country was receiving economic aid for the dismantling of a plutonium-producing facility. The U.S. also held out the prospect of improved political ties if North Korea continued to take steps to end its nuclear work. The U.S. and North Korea have no formal diplomatic relations.

Clinton plans to discuss Myanmar, North Korea and other security issues with counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the 27-member Asean Regional Forum, which includes China, Russia and India. She called on Myanmar to release Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

The U.S. is “deeply concerned” about alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar’s military regime, including widespread rapes, Clinton said. She expects “fair treatment” for Suu Kyi, who is on trial and could face as many as five years in prison for violating terms of her house arrest. She has spent about 13 years in detention since her party won 1990 elections that were never recognized by the army.

Asean Meetings

Asean foreign ministers, meeting in Phuket this week, condemned North Korea’s nuclear test and urged the country to return to the six-party talks. The group, which includes Myanmar, also called on the country to release Suu Kyiand other political prisoners.

In Phuket, Abhisit said yesterday that Asean “cannot interfere” in the trial of Suu Kyi.

Myanmar’s military junta is preparing to release an unspecified number of political prisoners so they can participate in national elections next year, the Asian country’s envoy to the United Nations said last week. The action came after a request from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to Myanmar earlier this month, Ambassador U Than Swe said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Bangkokt .

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