Bali: Tentative steps by North and South Korea to repair relations are not enough to warrant a return to multination nuclear disarmament talks, the Obama administration said at an Asian security conference on Saturday, where it also took a tough line on resolving heightened tensions in the South China Sea.
Declaring the United States a "resident power" with vital strategic interests throughout the Asia-Pacific, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said North Korea must do more to improve ties with the South before Washington will consider resuming six-party talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons in return for concessions.
In addition, Hillary laid out specific guidelines for the peaceful settlement of competing territorial claims by China and its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea, where she said such disputes are threatening the peace and security that has driven the region`s economic growth and prosperity.
Also on the agenda at Saturday`s talks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali was Myanmar, which Hillary said has reached a "critical juncture”.
The new civilian government, which took over late last year after a half-century of military rule, needs to make "concrete, measurable progress" in bringing about democratic reforms if it wants to win the confidence of the international community.
That includes releasing more than 2,000 political prisoners and holding meaningful dialogue with its political opponents.
The meeting opened with a buzz, with South Korea`s Foreign Minister, Kim Sung-hwan, and the North`s Pak Ui Chun walking casually into the conference hall together.
A day before, their countries` top nuclear negotiators met for the first time since nuclear disarmament talks collapsed three years ago, opening the door for dialogue and a potential return, eventually, to more negotiations between the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.
Hillary told diplomats from 26 other Asian and European countries that she was encouraged to see the change.
"But we remain firm that in order for six-party talks to resume, North Korea must take steps to improve North-South relations," she said. "North Korea continues to present a critical proliferation challenge to the international community and to threaten regional stability with its provocative actions."
Since the last round of talks, North Korea has conducted a second nuclear test and revealed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it another way to make atomic bombs. Recent North Korean threats against Seoul`s conservative government include a vow to retaliate over South Korean soldiers` use of pictures of the ruling North Korean family for target practice.
Ahead of the conference, China and its Southeast Asian neighbours also agreed to a preliminary plan to resolve territorial disputes in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.
China claims the sea — of tremendous strategic importance to everyone because one-third of the world`s shipping transits through it — in its entirety. The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia loudly disagree.
There have been several flare-ups in the waterway in recent months, with Beijing usually accused of being the instigator.
Hillary urged all parties to show restraint and to comply with international law "and resolve their disputes through peaceful means”. It`s vital, she said, that they work together.
As a starting point, the US wants all nations to map out their claims in terms consistent with customary international law, a senior US official said on condition he not be named, adding that many of the claims seem to be "exaggerated”.
North Korea`s newly appointed envoy, Ri Yong Ho, meanwhile, said on Friday that he and his South Korean counterpart, Wi Sung-lac, agreed during their meeting to work together to quickly restart nuclear talks.
Wi, who described the talks as "productive" and "helpful”, confirmed the agreement and said he and Ri would continue their efforts.
North Korea stands to get badly needed aid and other concessions if it returns to the talks and has indicated in recent months that it may be ready.
North Korea`s main ally, China, has been pressing for a speedy resumption of the talks. The US and other countries have held out, saying that meaningful North-South dialogue must occur first. A senior US official welcomed Friday`s meeting but said it remains to be seen if the rapprochement is enough to warrant a return to the table.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door diplomacy, said Hillary and the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea would meet in Bali on Saturday to assess the situation and plot a way forward. The official would not predict if a decision on resuming the six-party talks would be made at the meeting.
In a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Hillary affirmed "our mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula" but offered no hint on whether the US would agree to resume the nuclear talks.
Yang, however, signalled China`s intense interest in getting things back on track. "Anything we can do together to promote better atmosphere and good dialogue among the parties concerned and to work together to restart the six-party talks would be in the best interests of peace, stability and security of the region," he said.
The disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008, when North Korea walked out to protest international criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch. Tensions between the North and South have remained high ever since.