Kerry’s focus switches to North Korea, Syria

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic portfolio switched from Mideast diplomacy to North Korea and the Syrian crisis when he landed Monday in Brunei for a Southeast Asia security conference.

The tiny sultanate in the South China Sea, where he will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, is the last stop on Kerry’s two-week tour of seven countries in Asia and the Middle East. He landed Monday morning in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, after flying overnight from Tel Aviv, where he spent four days in long meetings trying to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

On the sidelines of the ASEAN conference, Kerry is scheduled to have a lengthy chat with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that likely will center on the Syrian crisis and Moscow’s decision not return National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the U.S. to face espionage charges.

“I am actually anxious to get there and to engage with him because the situation in Syria is grave,” Kerry said Sunday in Tel Aviv.

Russia is a key backer of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is fighting rebel forces who have been being armed by the U.S. and other nations.

“Clearly, part of my conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russians will be how we can maximize our efforts together to have an impact on this,” Kerry said. “I’m not going to go into greater detail with respect to that conversation, but I very much look forward to meeting with Sergey Lavrov when I get there.”

Kerry is also slated to have talks on the sidelines of the meeting with his counterparts in China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations.

North Korea is expected to send its longtime foreign minister, 80-year-old Pak Ui Chun, to the conference, and nations attending the forum are expected to reiterate a call for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Many want North Korea to abide by its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and commitments it made following six-party talks in 2005.

Because the ASEAN forum gathers diplomats from all six parties involved in long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations — the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas — it has previously has served as a venue for informal, sideline talks to break stalemates over the nuclear issue.

Other issues expected to loom large in Brunei are the South China Sea territorial disputes and relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies.

China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia over the South China Sea and its potentially oil- and gas-rich islands. Several claimants want group discussions in order to create a legally binding “code of conduct” to prevent clashes in the sea, but Beijing has not clearly stated when it will sit down with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to discuss such a nonaggression pact.

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