Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 5 News List

ASEAN meet marred by occasional clashes

AP , MANILA

Amid all the talk of unity and harmony at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia's largest security grouping, conflict still brewed behind closed doors and even boiled over publicly, with normally diplomatic Japan bristling over a confrontation with North Korea.

The North had been praised at the Manila meeting for shutting down its Yongbyon reactor, the first major step in dismantling its nuclear weapons program, and ARF foreign ministers urged the reclusive country to continue on the road to disarmament.

But while North Korea vowed to live up to its commitments, Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun renewed a demand in talks with his South Korean counterpart that the US end its "hostile policy" toward the North, a South Korean official said on Thursday.

There was also an unusual clash as Japan sought to include, in a final joint statement, a reference to the North's past abduction of Japanese citizens. Pak, making his first foreign trip since taking on his new job, responded by criticizing Japan, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso made a strong rebuttal, Aso spokesman Mitsuo Sakaba said.

The issue was only mentioned vaguely in the final statement, with the ministers emphasizing the "importance of addressing the issue of humanitarian and people concerns of the international community."

Myanmar, meanwhile, resisted the creation of a regional human rights body by the ASEAN, worried about interference in its internal affairs. It later acquiesced, but made clear that it does not want the new body to be too strong because it could be combative and embarrass governments.

Myanmar also managed to avoid any specific mention in the final statement of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy leader held under house arrest.

The two incidents demonstrated how single countries can hijack an agenda or water down public positions, but officials defended the ARF process. Meetings like this also have been criticized as talkfests that produce little but unfulfilled promises. But the diplomats say the fact that disparate countries can sit down and discuss hot topics is the start of real action down the road.

"Give us some time," outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said. "Before you ever get married, you have to talk to each other. We are building mutual trust, we are talking how to develop long-lasting relationships. Once we get our mutual trust, then we build our projects and programs, and that will not be difficult."

"What we are trying to do here in ASEAN ... is to create an area of peace and stability," said ASEAN's new chairman, Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo.

M. C. Abad, an ARF official, said the forum's 27 members adopted a cooperation framework on transnational crimes, including terrorism, which focuses on ensuring transport security, exchanging information and dealing with the consequences of terrorist acts.

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