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US Calls North-South Korea Meeting ‘Important Step’

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, attends a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Ministerial Meeting in Nusa Dua, Indonesia Friday, July 22, 2011.

The United States says the meeting between North and South Korean diplomats at the ASEAN conference in Bali is an important step, but that it is too soon to say if talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program can be put back on track.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed North Korea and other issues in Bali with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi.

North and South Korean diplomats had a positive assessment of their meeting Friday on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum.

But officials traveling with Secretary Clinton say they will withhold judgment on whether it advanced inter-Korean relations, until they can consult with the South Korean team.

A senior State Department official says the Bali meeting followed months of private back-channel conversations between the two that yielded little.

He says there was “some significance” to the fact the two sides met publicly in a high-profile venue like the ASEAN meeting. He also says prodding by China may have figured in the North Korean decision to take part.

The Korean situation figured heavily in Secretary of State Clinton’s meeting on the ASEAN sidelines with her Chinese counterpart.

As they began the talks, Clinton welcomed the agreement reached here on a code of conduct for peacefully resolving territorial disputes between China and four ASEAN states over the South China Sea.

“I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea," Clinton said. "And of course we will discuss our mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Seated across the table from Clinton, Foreign Minister Yang said Beijing, which claims the entire sea, wants to see a peaceful settlement.

“I do believe that the conclusion of the guidelines is of great significance," he said. "And it will go a long way to maintaining peace and stability and good-neighborliness in the regio. This will provide favorable conditions for the proper handling and settlement of disputes among the claimants.”

Clinton will end her foreign trip Monday with a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

The senior State Department official says Foreign Minister Yang expressed to Clinton Chinese displeasure over President Obama’s meeting earlier this week with the Dalai Lama. Clinton in turn raised China’s human rights record.

But he says the meeting was very productive and professional. He also says the fact the two Clinton meetings were not cancelled is a “pretty clear indication” that both sides understand the stakes in their broader relationship.

Clinton attended several multilateral meetings Friday, including two focused on environmental protection along the lower Mekong River, a vital resource for an estimated one billion people in the region.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell says that Laos has promised to extend a freeze on plans to build a hydro-electric dam across the Mekong.

“And that’s a major achievement," he said. "And the Secretary and all the key players in the meetings commended the Laotians for taking such a forward-leaning position.”

Campbell says the U.S. will conduct studies with Laos on the likely consequences of the dam.

At closed-door ASEAN Regional Forum plenary, Secretary Clinton called on Burma’s new nominally civilian government to release political prisoners, talk with the opposition, and address growing concerns about alleged weapons proliferation activity with North Korea.

She said the Burmese government has a clear choice of taking such steps and gaining the confidence of its people and the world community, or continuing down a path of political isolation.