The Obama administration on Friday lashed out at belligerent acts by North Korea, human rights abuses in military-run Myanmar and, in a sign of new U.S. attention to the Pacific, claimed the resolution of thorny territorial disputes in the South China Sea to be in America's national interest.
Speaking at a Southeast Asian regional security forum in Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned North Korea that it must reverse a "campaign of provocative, dangerous behavior" if it wants improved relations with its neighbors and the United States.
But North Korea threatened a "physical response" if the U.S. and South Korea go ahead with joint military exercises planned for this weekend.
North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il told reporters at the conference in Hanoi that the exercises would be "another expression of hostile policy against" North Korea. He said "there will be physical response against the threat imposed by the United States militarily."
In her remarks, Clinton said that stability in the region, particularly on the Korean peninsula, depends in large part on convincing an "isolated and belligerent" North Korea to change course. The communist North has pulled out of nuclear disarmament talks and is blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that has ratcheted up tensions.
"Peaceful resolution of the issues on the Korean peninsula will be possible only if North Korea fundamentally changes its behavior," Clinton told the gathering of top officials from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and countries with major interests in the area like the U.S., China, Japan, North and South Korea and Russia.
All members of stalled six-nation talks aimed at ridding the North of its nuclear weapons attended Friday's meeting in Hanoi, but there was scant hope of a breakthrough.
On Wednesday, Clinton announced in the South Korean capital, Seoul, that the U.S. would slap new sanctions on the North to stifle its nuclear ambitions and punish it for the sinking of the South Korean ship. The penalties will target the country's elite by taking aim at illicit activities, such as counterfeiting cigarettes and cash and money laundering.
Clinton went to Seoul to show support for South Korea along with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who announced new joint U.S.-South Korean naval drills in another sign of solidarity with the South.
The North has denied responsibility for the ship incident and has warned the U.S. and its allies against punishing it. On Thursday, a North Korean official in Hanoi for the security forum said the sanctions and military exercises pose "a grave threat to the peace and security not only to the Korean peninsula, but to the region."
There was no sign that members of the U.S. and North Korean delegations would meet or even cross paths at the annual security forum, which has in the past been a venue for rare talks between the two sides.
In addition to North Korea's own nuclear program, Clinton raised concerns about potential atomic collaboration between the North and Myanmar, also known as Burma, which is restricted by U.N. agreements. Reports in past months have suggested that Myanmar's military rulers are attempting to develop nuclear weapons with North Korean help.
Clinton said "recent events" had called into question Myanmar's pledges to abide by its international commitments, including U.N. sanctions, the requirements of its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. She did not elaborate but on Thursday mentioned in passing that a North Korean ship carrying military equipment had recently docked in Myanmar.
"It is critical that Burma hear from you, its neighbors, about the need to comply with" those obligations, Clinton told the forum.
She also hit out on Myanmar's human rights record, saying the U.S. is "deeply concerned about the oppression taking place" there against the regime's political opponents and minority groups. Myanmar has said it will hold elections at an as yet unannounced date later this year but U.S. officials say they don't believe the vote will be free or fair.
"We urge Burma to put in place the necessary conditions for credible elections, including releasing all political prisoners, respecting basic human rights and ceasing attacks against ethnic minorities," Clinton said.
The U.S. has repeatedly called for Myanmar to release detained Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party's landslide victory in 1990 elections was annulled by the military.
Clinton's comments on Myanmar echoed those of previous U.S. administrations but they come as President Obama has made a push for expanded engagement with Southeast Asia. Clinton is to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, something the Bush administration had refused to do.
In an indication of that increased involvement in the region, Clinton said "the United States has a national interest" in resolving conflicting claims over the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, particularly between China and Vietnam.
She said the disputes interfere with maritime commerce, hamper access to international waters in the area and undermine the U.N. law of the sea.
Her comments are likely to anger China, which asserts sovereignty over the whole South China Sea, but Clinton said the U.S. did not support any country's sovereignty over the islands. She said the U.S. is willing to work with the all the parties, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, to help negotiate an end to the disputes.