PHUKET, Thailand – Faced with a fresh refusal by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the communist regime has "no friends left" to shield it from punishing U.N. penalties.
"North Korea's continued pursuit of its nuclear ambitions is sure to elevate tensions on the Korean peninsula and could provoke an arms race in the region," Clinton told a news conference after conferring with officials from 26 other countries and organizations. She cited near unanimity on fully enforcing the latest U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its repeated nuclear and missile tests.
Clinton said the U.S. will continue to insist that North Korea return to the bargaining table and verifiably dismantle its nuclear program. At the same time, she held out the prospect of restoring U.S. diplomatic ties to North Korea and other incentives — actions the Obama administration would be willing to consider only if the North Koreans take irreversible steps to denuclearize.
Just before she spoke, a North Korean official declared the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea over. And the North Korean Foreign Ministry ridiculed Clinton, saying in a statement that she has "made a spate of vulgar remarks" that "suggest that she is by no means intelligent."
Before departing for Washington after a weeklong trip to India and Thailand, Clinton offered a somewhat more optimistic message about another trouble spot on the U.S. foreign policy agenda: Myanmar, the military-run southeast Asian nation also known as Burma.
"There is a positive direction that we see with Burma," she said. She praised Myanmar's government for committing to enforce the U.N. sanctions against North Korea, calling it important in light of Myanmar's suspected secret military links to North Korea.
And she suggested Myanmar may have played a role this month in persuading a North Korean cargo ship suspected of carrying weaponry in violation of the sanctions to return home instead of continuing to its destination, which U.S. officials said was probably Myanmar.
Clinton also called on Myanmar to unconditionally release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest.
On North Korea, Clinton stressed a point she has made repeatedly — that a fully nuclear North Korea might compel other countries in Asia to follow suit. She mentioned no names, but Japan and South Korea are thought to be among those that might go nuclear under circumstances in which they felt threatened by the North and less than fully confident of protection under a U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Clinton also said, "I wanted to make very clear that the United States does not seek any kind of offensive action against North Korea." She said a North Korean delegate at Thursday's meeting complained of being subjected to U.S. nuclear threats, but she said this showed a disconnect with reality, given that U.S. nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea nearly 20 years ago.
She said the world — including China, which has been North Korea's most loyal supporter — has made it clear to Pyongyang that it has "no place to go."
"They have no friends left that will protect them from the international community's efforts to move toward denuclearization," she said.
Just moments before she spoke at this southern Thai seaside resort, a spokesman for the North Korean delegation at the Phuket conference said his government will not return to six-party talks with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, citing the "deep-rooted anti-North Korean policy" of the United States.
"The six-party talks are over," Ri Hung Sik said.
The Phuket forum, known as the Asian Regional Forum and drawing senior officials from 27 nations, is one of the rare instances of U.S. and North Korean diplomats appearing together, although U.S. officials said there was no substantive contact. Clinton told the news conference she was disappointed in what she heard from the North Korean delegate who addressed the conference.
"The question is: Where do we go from here?" she asked.
Her reply, essentially, was that the U.S. and its negotiating partners will not back down from their insistence that North Korea not only resume negotiations but scrap its nuclear program in a verifiable way and return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And she said the U.N. sanctions will be applied as strictly and fully as possible.
"The bottom line is this: If North Korea intends to engage in international commerce its vessels must conform to terms" of the U.N. sanctions, "or find no port," she said.
Clinton said the Obama administration would soon send Philip Goldberg, its coordinator for implementing the U.N. sanctions that were approved by the Security Council in June, back to Asia for a new round of consultations on enforcement.
And, in what she called an illustration of U.S. concern about the welfare of North Korea's people, Clinton said the administration intends to appoint a special envoy to focus on North Korean human rights.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry, still smarting from an earlier Clinton comment likening the regime to "small children" demanding attention, released a statement Thursday saying: "We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."
Turning to another major security problem, Clinton held a one-on-one meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and said afterward that the Pakistani military's progress in fighting Taliban insurgents has been "encouraging" but incomplete.