Divided Koreas resume talks

MATTHEW LEE - Associated Press,ROBIN McDOWELL - Associated Press
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Nusa Dua, Indonesia Friday, July 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

BALI, Indonesia (AP) — The United States cautiously welcomed a thaw in tensions between North Korea and South Korea and also among China and its neighbors, while warning of more difficult diplomatic work ahead.

North and South Korea resumed long-stalled talks on Friday, lifting hopes for a return to multi-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations. The top nuclear negotiators from North and South Korea met on the sidelines of a regional security conference. It was the first such session since six-nation disarmament negotiations collapsed three years ago.

At the same conference, China and its Southeast Asian neighbors agreed to a preliminary plan to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Leading the American delegation at the meeting in Bali, Indonesia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also warned Myanmar that it had to reform to win back international confidence.

That country, also known as Burma, held elections late last year, officially handing power to a civilian administration after a half-century of military rule. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. But many see the changes as cosmetic and believe the army will continue to hold sway.

The Obama administration's policy of engaging Myanmar to improve conditions has produced few concrete results and Washington has not eased sanctions on the country. Clinton said the administration would be looking to Association of Southeast Asian Nations to press Myanmar on rights, but more importantly, she wants the country's new leaders to shift and engage the United States.

North Korea's newly appointed envoy Ri Yong Ho said he and his South Korean counterpart Wi Sung-lac agreed to work together to quickly restart the nuclear talks. "We agreed to make efforts to resume the six-party talks soon," Ri told reporters after the meeting. He said the meeting was conducted in a "candid and sincere" atmosphere.

Wi, who described the talks as "productive" and "helpful," confirmed the agreement and said he and Ri would continue their efforts.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed news of the sidelines talks as "a step forward," his spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "The Secretary-General hopes that the recent talks will help resume the six-party talks in the near future and further improve inter-Korean relations," said Nesirky.

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 U.S. and other countries have held out, saying that meaningful North-South dialogue must occur first. A senior U.S. 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 Clinton 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, Clinton said affirmed "our mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula" but offered no hint on whether the U.S. would agree to resume the nuclear talks.

Yang, however, signaled 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.

Progress was reported on another major security front, with the draft deal between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea.

"I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea," Clinton told Yang.

Yang said he believed the agreement would go "a long way" in promoting "peace and stability" in the resource-rich South China Sea, through which one-third of the world's shipping passes. "This will of course provide favorable conditions for the proper handling and settlement of disputes among claimants," he said.

China, which claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, has been accused in recent months of trying to block oil exploration by the Philippines and Vietnam in waters that are partially claimed also by those two countries and Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Beijing long has resisted calls for a binding code of conduct that would require disputes in the waterway to be solved peacefully and without threats of violence.

Last year, Clinton angered China by saying resolution to the disputes was a U.S. national security interest because of Washington's desire to guarantee navigational safety and maritime security in the South China Sea. She made the matter a central point of her participation in the East Asia Summit hosted by Vietnam, something that U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to restate when he attends that event this year.

Clinton's meeting with Yang appeared friendly, unusual given that Beijing just last week angrily condemned the White House meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, which China claims as a province.