HANOI (Reuters) - North Korea looks set to escape explicit rebuke at the Asia-Pacific’s biggest security forum on Friday over the sinking of a South Korean warship despite pressure on Pyongyang to make amends.
Diplomats said the March 26 sinking of the warship Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors featured prominently at a meeting in Hanoi of Southeast Asian foreign ministers and their counterparts from China, South Korea and Japan on Wednesday.
South Korea blames the torpedoing of the ship on the communist North, which accuses Seoul of fabricating the incident.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrives in Hanoi on Thursday, had been expected to seek stronger regional support for South Korea, which with U.S. backing has sought repercussions for Pyongyang for the sinking the naval vessel.
Seoul and Washington have said the North must admit responsibility for the sinking before they would return to six-way talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
But diplomats said the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) showed no sign of going beyond a statement issued on Tuesday that “deplored” the ship sinking and the rise in tensions but stopped short of blaming Pyongyang.
A Thai foreign ministry spokesman said ASEAN decided to adopt the stance of the United Nations, which condemned the sinking but in deference to China did not cite North Korea by name.
China, the closest North Korea has to an ally, has avoided taking a firm stand on who was responsible for destroying the Cheonan, which an international panel has blamed on a North Korean torpedo fired from a mini-submarine.
“The chances of ASEAN condemning North Korea are very slim. There is nothing to gain for Southeast Asia to go against China,” said an Asian diplomat who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
That means North Korea is unlikely to be singled out for criticism at Friday’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia’s largest security dialogue, where Pyongyang’s foreign minister is making a rare public appearance.
“It’s good that they are here,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters, referring to North Korea’s delegation. “I think it’s a promising sign.”
Calyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales, said ASEAN’s decision to avoid censuring Pyongyang reflects its well-honed style of conflict avoidance.
“There’s nothing to be gained,” he said. “China disagrees with the United States, so why pick sides on this? The U.N. has spoken so they can already see the writing on the wall that China has got that watered down ... Nothing is to be gained by isolating North Korea in their case.”
Southeast Asian officials have urged China, the United States and other parties in the six-way talks to use the Asia-Pacific forum to breathe new life into the discussions.
“ASEAN said we support the position of the U.N. and hope all parties involved would return to six-party talks,” Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said.
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun will attend Friday’s ASEAN Regional Forum which includes all six parties in the stalled North Korean nuclear talks — North and South Korea and regional powers China, Japan the United States and Russia.
Writing by Jason Szep, editing by Andrew Marshall