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ASEM Foreign Ministers Derailed by Burma, North Korean Nuclear Test

The foreign ministers of 45 Asian and European countries met in Hanoi Monday for talks on the global economy but found themselves wrapped up with the issues of Burma and North Korea.

The foreign ministers had expected to take up the question of how Europe and Asia could cooperate to pull the world's economy out of the downturn it has fallen into since the global financial crisis began. But the highest-profile session of the so-called ASEM group (Asia Europe Meeting), took place between representatives of the European Union and Burma.

The European Union called for the Burmese government to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She is on trial for violating the terms of the house arrest under which the government has held her for 14 of the past 20 years.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said releasing Suu Kyi was crucial to pave the way for planned elections in Burma next year.

"What is necessary for those elections is to have an inclusive dialogue with all political forces in the country. That is the necessary precondition for the stability that I think everyone is seeking for the country to be able to move forward," Mr. Bildt said. "And for that to be possible, there must of course be freedom for the different political forces."

By the time Bildt and Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout finished meeting with the Burmese, North Korea announced it had tested a second nuclear bomb. Bildt had to respond to that issue, too.

"It is alarming, it is a condemnation of the provocative regime in Pyongyang. I think it further isolates the country, I think it further aggravates the long-term situation of the country," Mr. Bildt said.

The North Korean move prompted the strongest response from the Japanese delegation. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kazuo Kodama said Japan would press for the ASEM meeting to issue a joint statement condemning the nuclear test, apart from the conference's normal closing statement.

"This nuclear testing poses a grave threat, a challenge to the NEPT regime and also poses a grave threat to the peace and security, stability, not only in the Northeast Asian region, but also the whole global community," Kodama said.

The Chinese, South Korean and North Korean delegations were reported to have met on the sidelines of the ASEM meeting, but no results of that meeting were made public.