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N. Korea to join talks about Southeast Asia

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BANGKOK — Southeast Asian foreign ministers ended a two-day meeting on Tuesday with promises of closer cooperation and prepared for wider regional security talks that include North Korea.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting was partly overshadowed by news that a U.N. peacekeeper was shot dead in East Timor.

The final communique of the meeting agreed to streamline decision making with a three-country "troika" to tackle myriad problems in its backyard, but it made few other commitments.

The troika is modeled on a European Union system originally using present, past and future presidents to take pressing decisions.

The ASEAN ministers now switch to talks bringing in a wider group of countries, initially including China, Japan and South Korea, and later diplomatic debutant North Korea and a host of other nations.

Tuesday's session was clouded by news of the first combat fatality suffered by a U.N.-backed peace enforcement team in East Timor.

A New Zealand soldier was killed in the bloodied former Indonesian territory by suspected pro-Jakarta militia, prompting condemnation from Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab.

"We deplore the incident, and we would like to see this accident not happen again, so we will also do our part to investigate," he told reporters on the ASEAN sidelines.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said he would meet Shihab in the Thai capital to voice concern over the killing.

New Zealand will be one of 37 countries represented at the ASEAN Regional Forum, a regional security grouping which meets from Thursday and includes North Korea for the first time.

Other ARF members include the United States, Russia and the European Union.

U.S. officials said the prospect of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meeting North Korean counterpart Paek Nam-Sun on Wednesday remained uncertain due to Middle East peace talks now going in the United States.

ASEAN needs speedier crisis response

An East Timorese delegation attending the talks said East Timor was interested in joining ASEAN, but not until it gains independence following its vote to cut ties with Indonesia. The territory is now being run by a transitional U.N. administration.

ASEAN groups Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The ASEAN ministers meeting was marked by some frank recognition of the need for the 10-nation bloc to act faster or be marginalized.

"Foreign Ministers underscored the need to strengthen cooperation on transnational issues affecting the region, especially those related to the environment, trafficking in persons, trafficking of illicit drugs, transnational crime and HIV/AIDS," the communique said.

It also reaffirmed ASEAN's pledge to support the territorial integrity of Indonesia, including the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, both of which have separatist pressures.