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US Still Open to North Korea Dialogue

The State Department's top diplomat for East Asia said Thursday the United States is not ruling out future dialogue with North Korea, despite the fact that Pyongyang is blamed for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan. But Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has no plans to meet North Korean or Burmese officials in Asia next week.

Campbell says the sinking of the South Korean ship in March was an outrage, but he is leaving the door open to future U.S.-North Korean contacts, provided Pyongyang ends provocative behavior and recommits to regional nuclear talks.

He briefed reporters on Secretary Clinton's visits next week to South Korea and Vietnam, where the Korean situation in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident is expected to be a key issue.

Clinton will join Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Seoul for a so-called "two-plus-two" meeting with their South Korean counterparts, and then go on to Hanoi at mid-week to take part in a regional dialogue with foreign ministers of ASEAN.

Campbell hailed what he termed the "calm and perseverance" shown by the South Korean government of President Lee Myung-Bak in the face of the sinking, which a South Korean-led investigation in May blamed on North Korea.

He said the "two-plus-two" meeting in Seoul will coordinate strategy and consider a variety of options for responding to the sinking. But he also said the United States and South Korea agree on the need to keep open the prospect of dialogue with Pyongyang.

"The United States and South Korea have always maintained, and our position is clear, that we are prepared under the right circumstances, to sit down in a dialogue with North Korea," said Campbell. "But, as President Lee Myung-Bak has said on numerous occasions, we do not want to talk for talking's sake. There has to be a clear determination that North Korea rejects its provocative ways and embraces a path toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Campbell said North Korea usually takes part in the ASEAN regional talks. But he said there are no plans for Clinton to meet in Hanoi with diplomats from either North Korea or ASEAN member Burma.

Campbell has been point-man in an Obama administration effort to engage Burma and prod the military government there to ease human rights conditions and hold elections later this year that meet international standards.

However, he said signals from Burma on election plans are not encouraging.

"The steps that we've seen to date suggest that these will not be free and fair elections; that there are many problems associated with the domestic environment. And we're concerned by the fact that the government has not engaged in a domestic dialogue with its critics and others," he said.

Campbell, who last visited Burma in May, said that as in the case of North Korea, the United States is prepared "under the right circumstances" to engage and work with Burmese authorities on trying to improve domestic political conditions.

The United States has pressed for the release of all Burmese political prisoners including detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and for a dialogue among the government, opposition parties and ethnic groups that will lead to credible elections.

Clinton is due to leave Washington this weekend on a trip that will include attendance at the Kabul conference on Afghanistan's political future. A full itinerary has not been released, but Pakistani officials say she will also make a stop in Islamabad.