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Asiaweek Pictures.
South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Joung Binn (right) greets his counterpart from the North, Paek Nam Sun, during the bi- lateral get-together in Bangkok. It was the first meeting between two foreign ministers of the divided Korean peninsula.

A Big Song and Dance
Still-shy debutant Pyongyang wins celebrity status at the ARF, but some caution lingers

Rail-Link Priority: 'Good intentions' are key in Seoul
Daily Reports

It was Madeleine Albright's playful way of bidding farewell. With a new American president coming into office in January, the U.S. secretary of state is bowing out too. Traditionally, at the closing dinner of annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings, ministers and officials put aside protocol and perform often-rowdy skits and musical numbers, usually poking fun at each other. Last year, Albright did a turn as the pop star Madonna. This time in Bangkok on July 28, she vamped it up in a bowler hat and tuxedo. Swinging a golf club, the former university professor sang a specially prepared number to the tune of Bob Hope's signature "Thanks for the Memories." Referring to her meeting earlier in the day with North Korean counterpart Paek Nam Sun, who attended the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security panel as Pyongyang's first representative, Albright crooned: "Just had my first handshake with Foreign Minister Paek. Used to think he was a rogue, but here at ARF, he's so in vogue."

She got that right. The North Koreans were certainly the real stars of Bangkok. On the way to his meeting with Albright, Paek was surrounded by photographers and cameramen falling over each other to follow him. Pity Canada's External Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who stood neglected only a few meters away. He, too, had talked to Paek, announcing later that Ottawa would establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. While Paek had a series of landmark bilateral meetings, including one with his South Korean opposite number, Pyongyang seemed happy enough just to be there. After the historic intra-Korean summit in June, host Thailand had pulled off a diplomatic coup in brokering North Korea's ARF admission in a matter of weeks. (Besides North Korea, the ARF includes the 10 ASEAN members; ASEAN observer Papua New Guinea; dialogue partners Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.; and Mongolia.)

Despite the hoopla, it quickly became clear that Paek had no authority to do more than chat. By and large, after meeting the mysterious diplomat, nobody was the wiser about North Korea's strategic intentions in the region. Of particular interest to the U.S.: Kim Jong Il's perplexing proposal recently conveyed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that North Korea will abandon its ballistic-missile program in exchange for space technology. Asked if she was able to glean any details of the offer, Albright quipped that "we discussed it but I was not able to glean." She cautioned against high expectations, describing her encounter with Paek as "substantively modest, but symbolically historic." The North Korean was certainly a charmer, she allowed. Paek had told her that the two had passed each other in a hallway at the U.N. in 1999 and that "I looked younger this year."

The North Korean minister was less courtly when it came to his statement at the ARF plenary session on July 27, which Albright missed. He took a swipe at Washington and its plans for a Theater Missile Defense (TMD) umbrella for the region. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula rested on "terminating the interference of outside forces," Paek declared. "The Cold War is over, yet we have failed to establish a new international political and economic order." And he put in a ritual paean of praise for his boss: Pyongyang's improving relations with Seoul and other countries came thanks to "the broadminded generosity, total magnanimity and great all-embracing politics of the great leader of our people, Gen. Kim Jong Il." While it may have made a big splash in Bangkok, North Korea is obviously not yet prepared to junk all its old habits.

"We're a long way from having any confidence over North Korea's actions," warned Axworthy. "There's going to be a very steep learning curve for them." European Union external relations commissioner Chris Patten also cautioned against going overboard. "It's sensible to be prudent in the way things move forward," he advised.

At the ARF meeting, Paek was not the only minister who took aim at the U.S. While the Europeans and even some of America's Asian allies were quietly skeptical of Washington's missile defense plans for the region, as well as a similar one to cover U.S. territory, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was openly critical. China came out the hardest. With Albright's deputy and stand-in Strobe Talbott listening, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan criticized the "Cold War mentality [that] is still affecting the way some countries perceive world politics." He added: "Some people are hawking the TMD program against the tide of our times. Such developments are compromising regional confidence-building and aggravating the instability of regional security." At the closing dinner, Tang would be on the receiving end of another jovial jab from Albright: "Tang Jiaxuan, one of my favorite men, but when you're not so sweet, I call the Seventh Fleet. That's the American way!"

Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung, meanwhile, targeted the U.S. and the E.U., questioning the objectives of Yangon's persistent critics. "The olive branch we've offered has been spurned by those who are opposing us in the belief that increasing pressure, isolating us and putting sanctions on us would work," he said. While the E.U. has relaxed its objections to the involvement of Yangon in its consultations with ASEAN, Myanmar is now the only member shut out of participating in an E.U. development scheme for the region.

Talbott, for his part, called for a beefing up of the ARF into a more formal grouping. Right now, the panel remains little more than an annual gathering of foreign ministers, though it uniquely includes all the major security powers in Asia and all the admitted nuclear players in the world, except Pakistan. Members are now considering how to push the forum to the next level: preventive diplomacy. This means the group would need a more activist chairman, as well as a working secretariat.

But for that to happen would require the consensus of all 23 participants. It won't come easily. Much will depend on the big boys, the U.S. and China. Beijing has long been skeptical of multilateral security arrangements in its backyard. Still, with the inclusion of Pyongyang, the ARF has taken a big step forward. Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan was upbeat. "The ARF is now airborne," he claimed. The Bangkok session had been open and lively. "Nobody fell asleep." But will they stay awake?

Reports of the meeting as they unfolded
[ Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 ]

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