VIENTIANE, LAOS —
The U.S. is stepping up efforts to help Laos deal with problems including hunger, unexploded ordnances and technology access for the lower Mekong.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the initiatives during a Monday visit to this capital city. He also talked about challenges outside of Asia, including the planned Syria peace talks.
He spoke with reporters after meeting with officials, including Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
The talks laid the groundwork for next month's special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in California, which will be hosted by President Barack Obama.
Kerry said the U.S. was launching a $6 million program to help provide meals in schools across Laos to combat the effects of hunger, which has stunted children's growth.
Kerry thanked the prime minister for help in addressing issues related to the Vietnam War, including tons of unexploded bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes on Laos.
An estimated 30 percent of the ordnance failed to detonate, which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the years since.
Kerry said the U.S. was considering if it could further increase its current $19.5 million in funding to help Laos with de-mining. Kerry said while the number of people hurt or killed by unexploded ordnances had dropped significantly, it remains a problem in the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong during the outset of a bilateral meeting at the Government House in Vientiane, Laos, Jan. 25, 2016.
He also said the U.S. is working with Laos on technology that could help increase the capacity of the lower Mekong, one of Asia's longest rivers, which runs through China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
"This is such an enormously important river, one of the great rivers of the world," Kerry said.
The secretary said he raised concerns about human rights and freedom of expression during his talks with officials, but did not provide specifics.
"Secretary Kerry’s visit to Laos, one of the most rights-repressing governments in ASEAN, should be the start of a strong and sustained U.S. push to demand that the Lao government reveal where is missing NGO leader Sombath Somphone and end [its] intensified intimidation of civil society," said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Sombath, a civil society reformer who led the Participatory Development Training Center in Laos, was seized at a police checkpoint in December 2012. He was taken by men in plainclothes and has not been seen since then.
Laos is the first leg of a three-nation tour of Asia for Kerry that will include stops in Cambodia and China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signs the guest book after visiting the That Luang Stupa -- the most revered Buddhist temple in Laos -- following meetings with government leaders in Vientiane, Laos, Jan. 25, 2016.
Syria peace talks
Kerry said that, in addition to discussing issues of regional concern, he also spoke by phone to his counterparts from countries including France and Turkey, on the planned talks for a political transition in Syria.
The U.N.-led talks between the Syrian government and the opposition were initially set to begin Monday in Geneva. But disagreements over the makeup of the opposition have delayed the process.
Kerry said he also spoke to U.N. special Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. He said he expected progress within the next two days on when the talks would start. The goal of these preliminary conversations is to ensure that, when the talks start, "everybody is clear about roles and what’s happening, so that you don’t go there and wind up with a question mark or a failure," he said.
He also said the International Syria Support Group, which has been backing the U.N.-effort, had tentatively planned to meet again on February 11.
Before his visit with Thammavong, Kerry visited the That Luang Stupa shrine, the most important Buddhist monument in Laos, which is believed to enshrine a breast bone of the Buddha.
Laos has just taken over the chairmanship of ASEAN. The upcoming U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit will also be a focal point for Kerry at his next stop, Cambodia, another ASEAN country.
Later this year, Obama is scheduled to travel to Laos for an ASEAN summit, becoming the first U.S. president to do so.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, tours Pha Tha Luang with Phouvieng Phothisane, acting director of the Vientiane Museums, far left, and Tata Keovilay, with the U.S. Embassy, in Vientiane, Laos, Jan. 25, 2016.
North Korea a focal point
Kerry will also visit Beijing during this trip, which comes after North Korea drew international condemnation, this month, for testing what it said was a nuclear device, for the fourth time since 2006.
"In an odd way, every time North Korea does a nuclear test that's a moment of opportunity for the United States to try to convince China to cooperate more closely in punishing North Korea," said Scott Snyder, a Korean studies analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. has been pressing China, an economic lifeline to North Korea, to use its leverage to urge Pyongyang to stop what world leaders view as provocative action. Also, the U.N. Security Council, which includes China, is considering imposing additional penalties on North Korea.
Kerry said he looked forward to having a "solid," "serious" conversation with his Chinese counterparts on the issue.
"One of the most serious issues on the planet today ... is a clearly reckless and dangerous evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment," he said.
The U.S. has also been urging China and its neighbors to seek a peaceful resolution to a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, regional tensions flared when China tested a runway on one of its artificial islands in the region. China and other Asia-Pacific nations, including Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.