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1 June 2009

S Korea-Asean summit held amidst N Korea tensions

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South Korea imposed heavy security Sunday for a summit with Southeast Asian leaders following North Korean nuclear and missile tests that frayed nerves across the region, the Associated Press reported.

The summit was planned months ago, but North Korea's underground nuclear test and a series of short-range missile launches last week threatens to steal the limelight from economic and diplomatic matters.

The summit venue of Seogwipo - on the island of Jeju off the southern coast - is the city farthest away from the North. Still, the nervous South Korean government is taking no chances, positioning a surface-to-air missile outside the venue aimed toward the north.

Some 5,000 police officers, including approximately 200 commandos, and special vehicles that can analyse sarin gas and other chemicals have been deployed nearby, security authorities said in a press release. Marines, special forces and air patrols also kept watch on the island.

Leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations began arriving for the two-day summit, which officially begins Monday and commemorates 20 years of relations between South Korea and the bloc. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak planned to use Sunday for individual meetings, including with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.

But concerns about North Korea's most recent bout of saber-rattling loomed. South Korean officials said Saturday that spy satellites had spotted signs that the North may be preparing to transport a long-range missile to a launch site.

The North has attacked South Korean targets before, bombing a Korea Air jet in 1987 and trying to kill then-President Chun Doo-hwan in Myanmar in 1983. But Pyongyang has largely abandoned such overt tactics in the past two decades.

The UN Security Council is still weighing how to react to the North's belligerent moves that have earned Pyongyang criticism from the US, Europe, Russia and even the North's closest ally, China.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday that North Korea's progress on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is "a harbinger of a dark future" and has created an urgent need for more pressure on the reclusive communist government to change its ways.

Gates, speaking at an annual meeting of defense and security officials in Singapore, said Pyongyang's efforts pose the potential for an arms race in Asia that could spread beyond the region.

In addition to the summit, a gathering of South Korean and Southeast Asian business leaders began Sunday with addresses by Lee and Abhisit, who both called for further cooperation to overcome the global economic crisis.


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