WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said Monday that direct U.S. engagement with Burma's military leaders could provide crucial answers on the junta's dealings with North Korea.
The Obama administration's seven-month policy review has resulted in a decision to engage in direct high-level talks in an effort to promote democracy in Burma. That is a sharp break with the former Bush administration's policy of shunning Burma to protest repeated crackdowns on attempts to reinstate democratic government in the Southeast Asian nation.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters that the U.S. policy change on the country, which is also known as Myanmar, is a recognition that neither isolation nor engagement had improved miserable living conditions or political freedoms in Burma.
"For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership is showing an interest in engaging with the United States, and we intend to explore that interest," Campbell said.
He also highlighted the ability to look into what he said were recent U.S. concerns about military ties between Burma and North Korea that "require greater focus and dialogue."
When asked about those links, Campbell would not provide specifics.
In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed worry during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum that North Korea, with its history of illicit sales of missiles and nuclear technology, had begun developing ties to Burma's military dictatorship.
U.S. officials also have mentioned the possibility that North Korea could be cooperating with Burma on a nuclear weapons program, although they have said intelligence on the matter was incomplete.
International unease escalated recently when a North Korean freighter headed toward Burma with undisclosed cargo. Shadowed by the U.S. Navy, it eventually reversed course and returned home.
Campbell said that although the United States is willing to begin "a long and difficult process" of engagement, any improvement of ties between the countries will depend on how willing Burma is to release almost 2,200 political prisoners and allow democratic changes.
Tough U.S. sanctions, Campbell said, will remain in place until the United States sees "concrete progress toward reform" in Burma, which has been ruled by the military since 1962; more sanctions could be imposed if changes are not forthcoming.
"Lifting sanctions now would send the wrong signal," he said.
Campbell said details still are being worked out, but contact between himself and Burmese officials could happen at the United Nations this week. On Monday, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, was to meet with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein in New York City.
Webb recently visited Burma and met with the country's ruling general and with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party handily won the country's last elections in 1990. The military never honored those results.
Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, and a global groundswell of international pressure to release the 64-year-old opposition leader has kept the country under sanctions in recent years.
Last month, Suu Kyi was sentenced to another 18-month stint under house arrest for allowing an American intruder to stay at her home. The sentence ensures that she cannot participate in next year's election.
Campbell said that the United States is skeptical that elections next year "will be either free or fair, but we will stress to the Burmese the conditions that we consider necessary for a credible electoral process."
Aung Din, executive director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said his group supported the new U.S. policy but urged the Obama administration to support an arms embargo against Burma, investigate "mass atrocities" and impose other new sanctions if Burma's leaders do not cooperate with the opposition and stop abusing civilians.