PHUKET, Thailand – Hillary Rodham Clinton and North Korea exchanged pointed barbs Thursday, with Clinton declaring North Korea “has no friends left” and the communist regime calling the U.S. secretary of state a “schoolgirl.”
The sharp words came as North Korea announced it had refused to re-enter talks to terminate its nuclear weapons program.
Clinton said the world has made it clear to Pyongyang that it has “no place to go,” citing near unanimity among Asian nations, including China, on fully enforcing the latest U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its repeated nuclear and missile tests.
Warning the North’s nuclear ambitions could spark an arms race in the region, Clinton said the U.S. would continue to vigorously enforce tough U.N. sanctions and insist that the north “irreversibly denuclearize.”
But she held out the prospect of restoring U.S. diplomatic ties and other incentives – actions the Obama administration would be willing to consider if the North Koreans dismantle their nuclear program.
“We urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks, look beyond the past and join others in finding the way forward,” said Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who hosted the ASEAN Regional Forum, a security conference among 27 countries and organizations that ended Thursday.
Clinton, who trumpeted Washington’s renewed involvement in Asia during the conference, departed the resort island for Washington, wrapping up a weeklong trip to India and Thailand.
“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 before her departure.
Just moments before she spoke, a spokesman for the North Korean delegation said his government would not return to 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, calling any proposed U.S. incentives “nonsense.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, reacting to an earlier Clinton comment likening the regime to “small children” demanding attention, described her Thursday as “a funny lady” who sometimes “looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
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.
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. “There is a positive direction that we see with Burma,” she said.
Clinton 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 and faces a five-year prison term.
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 if they felt threatened by the North and less than fully confident of protection under a U.S. nuclear umbrella.
North Korea’s leaders, Clinton said, “have no friends left that will protect them from the international community’s efforts to move toward denuclearization.”
Clinton also said she “wanted to make very clear that the United States does not seek any kind of offensive action against North Korea.”
Citing complaints from a North Korean delegate that Pyongyang has been subjected to U.S. nuclear threats, Clinton said this showed a disconnect with reality, given that U.S. nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea nearly 20 years ago.
Clinton said she was disappointed when the North Korean delegate refused to “recognize that North Korea has been on the wrong course” in his address to the conference.
“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.
“Our goal in enforcing these sanctions and others proposed earlier is not to create suffering or destabilize North Korea. Our quarrel is not with the North Korean people.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said the North’s negotiating partners agreed in Phuket to open the door for a dialogue with Pyongyang while enforcing the U.N. sanctions.
Clinton said the Obama administration would soon send Philip Goldberg, its co-ordinator for implementing the U.N. sanctions, back to Asia for a new round of consultations on a joint enforcement strategy.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Mike Casey contributed to this report.