Hanoi: The Obama administration on Friday lashed out at belligerent acts by North Korea, human rights abuses in military-run Myanmar and, in a sign of new US attention to the Pacific, claimed the resolution of thorny territorial disputes in the South China Sea to be in America`s national interest.
Speaking at a Southeast Asian regional security forum in Vietnam, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned North Korea that it must reverse a "campaign of provocative, dangerous behaviour" if it wants improved relations with its neighbours and the United States.
She said that stability in the region, particularly on the Korean peninsula, depends in large part on convincing an "isolated and belligerent" North Korea to change course. The communist North has pulled out of nuclear disarmament talks and is blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that has ratcheted up tensions.
"Peaceful resolution of the issues on the Korean peninsula will be possible only if North Korea fundamentally changes its behaviour," Hillary told the gathering of top officials from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and countries with major interests in the area like the US, China, Japan, North and South Korea and Russia.
On Wednesday, Hillary announced in the South Korean capital that the US would slap new sanctions on the North to stifle its nuclear ambitions and punish it for the sinking of the South Korean ship. The penalties will target the country`s elite by taking aim at illicit activities, such as counterfeiting cigarettes and cash and money laundering.
Hillary went to Seoul to show support for South Korea along with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who announced new joint US-South Korean naval drills in another sign of solidarity with the South.
The North has denied responsibility for the ship incident and has warned the US and its allies against punishing it. On Thursday, a North Korean official in Hanoi for the security forum said the sanctions and military exercises pose "a grave threat to the peace and security not only to the Korean peninsula, but to the region”.
"If the US is really interested in the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, it should halt the military exercises and sanctions that destroy the mood for dialogue," the official, Ri Tong Il, told reporters here.
There was no sign that members of the US and North Korean delegations would meet or even cross paths at the annual security forum, which has in the past been a venue for rare talks between the two sides.
In addition to North Korea`s own nuclear program, Hillary raised concerns about potential atomic collaboration between the North and Myanmar, also known as Burma, which is restricted by UN agreements. Numerous reports in past months have suggested that Myanmar`s military rulers are attempting to develop nuclear weapons with North Korean help.
Hillary said "recent events" had called into question Myanmar`s pledges to abide by its international commitments, including UN sanctions, the requirements of its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. She did not elaborate but on Thursday mentioned in passing that a North Korean ship carrying military equipment had recently docked in Myanmar.
"It is critical that Burma hear from you, its neighbours, about the need to comply with" those obligations, Hillary told the forum.
She also hit out on Myanmar`s human rights record, saying the US is "deeply concerned about the oppression taking place" there against the regime`s political opponents and minority groups. Myanmar has said it will hold elections at an as yet unannounced date later this year but US officials say they don`t believe the vote will be free or fair.
"We urge Burma to put in place the necessary conditions for credible elections, including releasing all political prisoners, respecting basic human rights and ceasing attacks against ethnic minorities," Hillary said.
The US has repeatedly called for Myanmar to release detained Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party`s landslide victory in 1990 elections was annulled by the military.
Hillary`s comments on Myanmar echoed those of previous US administrations but they come as President Barack Obama has made a push for expanded engagement with Southeast Asia. Hillary is to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nation`s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, something the Bush administration had refused to do.
In an indication of that increased involvement in the region, Hillary said "the United States has a national interest" in resolving conflicting claims over the Spratley and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, particularly between China and Vietnam.
She said the disputes interfere with maritime commerce, hamper access to international waters in the area and undermine the UN law of the sea.
Her comments are likely to anger China, which asserts sovereignty over the whole South China Sea, but Hillary said the US did not support any country`s sovereignty over the islands. She said the US is willing to work with the all the parties, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, to help negotiate an end to the disputes.