Foreign ministers of 23 Asian and Pacific countries urged North Korea to resume cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and to return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after a day of talks ended Wednesday.
With the arrival of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the focus of the ministerial meetings swayed from the political situation in Burma to the nuclear threat of North Korea, but the ministers also called for faster democratic reform from the Burmese junta and an “early lifting of restrictions” on Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy.
Ministers “called for a peaceful solution of the nuclear problem [in North Korea] for the sake of durable peace and security in the region,” according to a statement by Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong, who chaired the Asean Regional Forum Wednesday.
“ARF members made it abundantly clear that we all need to work together to see a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula,” said Powell.
Asean efforts in keeping pressure on North Korea are crucial for finding a diplomatic solution that leaves the peninsula, the region and the world safer, he said.
The Japanese foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, was pleased with the strong stance Asean had taken on the North’s nuclear capabilities, a stance that showed North Korea that it stands alone in its insistence on maintaining a nuclear arsenal, spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said.
“North Korea should have understood the atmosphere, which would make the North Koreans very much isolated,” Takashima said. “They were listening to what the other ARF members were saying.”
Japan, along with South Korea, is within missile range of the North, but they have so far failed to secure multilateral talks with China, the US and North Korea.
The Japanese government will now “wait and see what sort of reaction North Korea will take,” Takashima said.
“There’s no doubt that members of the Asean Regional Forum want a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and we expect North Korea to fulfill its responsibilities and abandon its nuclear programs,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters between meetings.
Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs Surakiart Sathirathai said he believed that Asean itself had the capability to play a significant role in the resolution of the Korea question, but that it would play a “complimentary role.” He did not elaborate.
The ministers stopped short of condemning the North’s weapons program and sanctions against North Korea were not discussed, Hor Namhong said Wednesday.
“No one condemned North Korea,” he said.
North Korea’s foreign minister did not attend the meetings, but was represented by the North Korean ambassador to Cambodia.
The Burmese delegation, too, met a unified call for change from the international community Wednesday, with Asean and the other forum members all urging political reform and the “lifting of restrictions” on Suu Kyi.
“To be effective the international community must stand together. The brutal rulers of Burma need to understand that the only acceptable way forward is to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters and to resume dialogue with her and with her party,” Powell said late Wednesday, adding that he was “pleased so many ARF and Asean members spoke out strongly on this issue.”
Asean has a strict policy of non-interference with the internal politics of member nations, but the detention of Suu Kyi less than a month before this week’s meetings put that policy to a test. Leaders have insisted that they did not breach this policy when they “urged” Burma to “resume its efforts of national reconciliation.”
“I took the opportunity of stressing to the Burmese foreign minister that the administration in Rangoon should release Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy leaders. They should get into the process of dialogue with the NLD and that we want to see constitutional reform in Burma,” Downer said. “From talking with Burmese foreign minister, the Asean foreign ministers have had a real affect on him and the foreign ministry.”
Leaders agreed that with the strong stances on both Burma and North Korea the annual regional exchange has proven itself effective and could now move closer to a forum for preventative diplomacy as well.
“We are satisfied that the ARF has evolved at a comfortable pace for all,” Hor Namhong said.
However, he said, the forum would not yet reach out for new members, such as Pakistan, because a moratorium remains in place on the admission of new members. Officials from member countries will be looking at ways to possibly lift the moratorium and start a process of admitting new members, Hor Namhong said.
Among other agreements reached Wednesday was a consensus that ministers support the unity of Indonesia and a recognition of “the efforts of the Indonesian government to restore peace and order in Aceh.” Ministers also touched upon the peace process in Sri Lanka and “welcomed” the peace talks between Sri Lanka’s government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.”
Cambodia’s efforts as host of the meeting also met with praise from ministers. Cambodia has now successfully hosted both the Asean summits in November and this week’s series of meetings, and will hand the chairmanship of Asean to Indonesia.