Tensions concerning North Korea are expected to overshadow meetings in Vietnam between foreign ministers of Asia Pacific and Western nations. The forum is set to begin as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced new sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear program. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is hoping to help restart dialogue on the issue.
Foreign ministers with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet with representatives from 16 other nations and the European Union to discuss security issues and cooperation.
South and North Korea are seeking diplomatic support on the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March that killed 46 sailors.
Seoul says North Korea torpedoed the ship – a claim backed by an international investigation. But Pyongyang denies it is responsible for the attack.
The issue has stalled six-nation efforts to return to negotiations to end North Korea's nuclear program.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told journalists the Southeast Asian ministers hope the regional forum will encourage dialogue for a return to six-party talks. He said the fact that North Korea's foreign minister is attending the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) after a 10-year absence is, what he called, a very significant symbol.
"ASEAN has been saying that look, all six of you are in ARF,” Surin said. “Why not make use of the forum; why not make use of the mechanism and process here. And that is what the ASEAN foreign ministers have been trying to do."
The six nations involved in the nuclear talks are China, the United States, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea.
Few observers believe the six will meet to discuss the North Korea issue during the meetings in Hanoi.
Seoul and Washington have said they will not return to talks until North Korea admits it was responsible for sinking the South Korean ship.
On the eve of the ASEAN meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced new sanctions against the North during a visit to South Korea. The new sanctions target illicit money-making activities that are used to fund weapons production and acquire luxury goods for Pyongyang's leadership.
Clinton will attend meetings Thursday and Friday in Hanoi and could cross paths with the North Korean foreign minister.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told journalists the uncertainty concerning North Korea is not good for the region and could not be left unresolved.
"Even, you can disagree in a most frank and candid manner, as we say in our parlance,” said Natalegawa. “But at least if you are sitting in the same room, that is better than not to have talk at all."
ASEAN members include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Late Tuesday, they issued a statement condemning the sinking of the South Korean ship, but it did not assign blame. The statement also urged all sides to return to six-party talks to negotiate a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.