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N. Korea inducted into security forum

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BANGKOK, Thailand — After decades of international isolation, North Korea was inducted Thursday into Asia's leading security forum amid hopes the Stalinist nation's opening to the world will ease tensions in the region.

North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun joined counterparts from 23 other Western and Asian-Pacific countries at the one-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, or ARF, in Bangkok.

"I think that our country's admission to the ARF reflects the common desire to establish normal relations and promote amity and harmony," Paek said.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, freed by the collapse of the Middle East peace summit, was dashing to the Thai capital to meet Paek on Friday to clarify the North's latest plans on its missile program.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it made more sense to have dialogue with North Koreans than freeze them out. Host Thailand declared the country's entry would foster higher confidence in the region and contribute to world peace.

Ministers touched on a wide range of concerns, including instability in Indonesia and the disputed mineral-rich islands in the South China Sea. They also debated so-called soft security threats, like piracy and trafficking in drugs, arms and human beings.

The forum hotly debated missile defense systems planned by the United States largely against the threat posed by North Korea's missile program.

Russia issued a statement saying it was being joined by China and Vietnam in opposing a reported U.S. proposal to expand a planned missile theater defense — originally to protect U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea — to cover all of East Asia.

"The Americans are actively promoting the idea of expanding the theater anti-missile defense system, which would include not only Northeast Asia but also Southeast Asia," Ivanov said in the statement.

Deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott said later that the theater defense would "not necessarily, certainly not in the current context" cover Southeast Asia.

"No decisions have been made in that regard with respect to this region, so I don't know what he's talking about," Talbott said.

China's foreign minister, Tang Jinxuan, leveled a blistering criticism, saying the "cold war mentality is still affecting the way some countries perceive world politics and international relations."

"Some people are hawking the theater missile defense program against the tide of our times," Tang said.

Russia and China are also critical of separate U.S. plans to deploy a national defense system over its own territory, saying it would flout existing arms control treaties and trigger a new weapons race.

Talbott defended the national shield as part of a multi-pronged approach that includes deterrence and export controls on technology.

Despite the wrangling, the overriding message was a big welcome to North Korea and hopes that dragging the Stalinist state from its hostile isolation would bring greater stability to a volatile region.

Canada announced that it was formally recognizing North Korea after Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy met late Wednesday with Paek, the North's foreign minister.

Albright's visit comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il informed Russia last week that he wanted to transform his missile program into peaceful launches of satellites.

The United States has said it could accept North Korean satellite launches from elsewhere, possibly the South Pacific, but would oppose sales of rocket boosters and other technology to Pyongyang, according to South Korean diplomats cooperating with the Americans.