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N. Korea Pulls Out of ASEAN Regional Forum - 2003-06-11

North Korea has pulled out of a regional security forum next week, ending hopes that it would join in discussions on its nuclear weapons program. The news comes as South Korea announces plans to increase defense spending to counter threats from the North.

North Korea's foreign minister had been expected at next week's ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh. But Cambodia said on Wednesday that Pyongyang was pulling out of the meeting. Cambodia expressed disappointment, saying it had hoped the summit would be an opportunity to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and top officials from China, Japan and South Korea will attend the annual gathering, called ARF. It would have been one of the few large multilateral gatherings North Korea has attended since the revelation last October that it was seeking to build nuclear weapons. The weapons program violates several international accords.

Since then, tensions have risen sharply on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons for defense, and insists it will only give them up in return for a security pact with the United States and increased foreign aid. It also wants to discuss the issue only with the United States.

Washington, however, says Pyongyang must comply with its international obligations to be nuclear-free before other issues can be discussed. The United States also wants other countries to be involved in talks on the matter.

Most of the nations attending the ARF conference have urged North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.

Also Wednesday, South Korea said it will increase military spending next year by more than 28 percent from this year, primarily to counter the threat from the North.

For several years, South Korea has tried to engage the North, hoping aid and development projects would draw Pyongyang into the world community and strengthen its dismal economy. In the past few months, Seoul, however, has gradually toughened its stance, although it insists the nuclear dispute must be resolved peacefully.

There has been one small sign of progress in relations between North and South Korea.

Military officials from the two countries on Wednesday crossed the Demilitarized Zone for the first time in 50 years to inspect work on a cross-border railroad. South Korea's defense ministry says 10 people from each country, led by a colonel, walked to the opposite side of the border area.

The event took place a day before diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan are to meet in Hawaii to discuss coordinating policy on North Korea.