- Associated Press - Monday, July 19, 2010

HANOI (AP) — Tensions with North Korea are expected to overshadow Asia’s largest security forum in Vietnam this week, four months after 46 South Korean sailors were killed in the sinking of a warship that was blamed on Pyongyang.

The reclusive North, which has denied attacking the 1,200-ton Cheonan, will send its top diplomat to the annual security meeting organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her South Korean counterpart also will attend, marking the first time the three have met since the ship incident.

Foreign ministers from the 10 member countries began arriving Monday in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where security has been tightened for their annual gathering. They will be joined later in the week by officials from the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States for the ASEAN Regional Forum.

The ministers’ agenda is heavy with issues surrounding the bloc’s goal of establishing a European-style economic community by 2015, and the lingering hardship created by the global financial crisis.

But North Korea and military-ruled Myanmar are expected to dominate discussions.

In separate draft statements obtained by the Associated Press, ASEAN and ARF ministers strongly condemned the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan but did not put the blame on Pyongyang.

“We expressed deep concern over the sinking of the ship Cheonan and the rising tension on the Korean peninsula,” the statement said. “We urge all parties concerned to exercise utmost restraint, enhance confidence and trust, settle disputes by peaceful means.”

They will seek the resumption of stalled six-way talks aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons program. The last nuclear disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were held in Beijing in December 2008.

An international team of investigators concluded in May that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank the Cheonan in the tense waters near the two Koreas’ maritime border. Pyongyang denies any responsibility and has warned any punishment would trigger war.

The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. North and South are divided by a heavily fortified border, and the United States keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect the longtime ally.

Pyongyang, which has tested two nuclear weapons in recent years, routinely cites the U.S. presence as a key reason behind its drive to build nuclear weapons.

The ASEAN ministers also will press Myanmar, which plans to call general elections this year, to hold its polls in a “free, fair and inclusive manner with the participation of all political parties,” according to the draft statement.

The reclusive junta has yet to set a date for the elections, Myanmar’s first in two decades. Critics have dismissed the election as a sham designed to cement nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party will boycott the vote, citing unfair elections laws. Her party has since been disbanded.

Additionally, Myanmar has been suspected of embarking on a nuclear program with the aim of developing a bomb — with backing from North Korea. Its ruling junta has denied the allegations, and it was not clear whether the issue would be raised by any ministers of ASEAN, which has a bedrock policy of not interfering in one another’s affairs.

The ASEAN ministers also will work on the agenda of a summit in October between their heads of state and President Obama, who has been criticized after promising to more actively engage the region. Mr. Obama spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It admitted Myanmar in 1997, despite strong opposition from Western nations.

Associated Press writer Jean Lee contributed to this report from Seoul.

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