NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years on Wednesday, launching an historic mission to press the reclusive country's new leaders to sever illicit contacts with North Korea and deliver on reforms.
Clinton's blue-and-white official plane touched down at the airport in Naypyitaw, the remote new capital of the country formerly known as Burma, starting a three-day visit which will see her meet the new military-backed civilian leadership and hold discussions with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clinton is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar since John Foster Dulles in 1955, and her visit caps a period of rapid and remarkable transformation in the Southeast Asian country, a virtual international pariah since the military seized power in a coup in 1962 starting decades of brutal authoritarian rule.
The visit, announced by President Barack Obama at a regional summit in earlier this month, could also open a new arena of U.S. competition with China, which has watched warily as Washington courts its resource-rich southern neighbour as part of a broader policy of increasing U.S. engagement in Asia.
Clinton will meet President Thein Sein and other senior officials in Naypyitaw on Thursday, giving her the chance to personally assess their commitment to a reform process that is gaining momentum following elections last November which saw the military nominally hand over power to civilian officials.
Clinton scrambled to leave South Korea on schedule in order to make it to Myanmar before sunset. The capital's airfield has no lights for evening landing, and her plane had to depart to overnight in Bangkok because there was insufficient security to leave it on the ground, U.S. officials said.
Clinton emerged from the plane in a bright pink blazer and walked down the staircase to greet a small number of Myanmar officials in a decidedly low-key welcome. The airport, little more than an airfield on the outskirts of the newly-built city, was adorned with a welcoming banner -- but it was for the prime minister of Belarus, who arrives Thursday on a separate visit.
Clinton got her first views of the country from the windows of a motorcade, which bumped along a newly-built but uneven highway past rice fields and building sites. At each intersection, policemen solemnly held up their hands to stop non-existent traffic in a city with few people and fewer cars.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Clinton would urge Myanmar's new leaders -- many of them until recently top generals -- to break off secret military deals with North Korea, another isolated state whose rogue nuclear programme has spurred fears across East Asia and drawn international sanctions.
"Our discussions will be around seeking much stronger assurances ... of a determination on the part of the government to discontinue activities that we believe are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability," the official told reporters aboard Clinton's plane.
U.S. officials say they believe Myanmar has sought missile technology from North Korea, but played down concerns that this cooperation had broadened to include a nuclear programme.
"To date our primary area of focus is the missiles," the official said. "We've looked at this fairly carefully and we do not see signs of a substantial nuclear effort at this time."
U.S. MULLS RECIPROCAL GESTURES
Disrupting Myanmar's tentative alignment with Pyongyang would be a major diplomatic bonus for the United States, but U.S. officials said Clinton would also keep up pressure for more reforms at home by offering reciprocal U.S. gestures if democratic changes deepened.
U.S. officials have said Myanmar -- long seen as a major human rights violator -- needs to release all political prisoners and make progress in ending bloody conflicts with ethnic minority groups before Washington can consider lifting crippling economic sanctions imposed two decades ago.
"The secretary comes with a series of very specific steps that we'd like to see in terms of the next phase of the process that is under way," the U.S. official said.
"We expect this to be a very thorough review of not only the steps that they have taken, and what we expect to see in the future, but the things that the United States is prepared to do in response."
Potential symbolic moves such as easing travel restrictions on top Myanmar officials or returning a full U.S. ambassador to the country after years of a more junior-level representation could bolster reformers in the government, who are still thought to face some opposition from entrenched military interests.
But Clinton has played down the prospect for any rapid easing of sanctions, most of which would require action by Congress where some lawmakers remain sceptical of the reform effort.
"Secretary Clinton's visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal," Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the powerful head of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "The enforcement of tough sanctions ... is needed to bring about the needed political change in Burma."
Clinton will travel to the main commercial city of Yangon on Thursday and make an offering at the city's imposing Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden spire has long been a revered symbol of Myanmar's nationhood.
She will also hold two meetings with Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and democracy advocate who spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention before being released last November. It will be Clinton's first chance to personally compare notes with the pro-democracy heroine, who often draws comparisons with South Africa's Nelson Mandela.
At a private dinner on Thursday, and again at a formal meeting at Suu Kyi's home on Friday, the two are expected to discuss Suu Kyi's plans to stand in coming by-elections, which would bring her into the formal political process.
Clinton will also meet civil society activists and representatives of ethnic minorities. Conflict between minority guerrillas and the military in border areas may be among the most difficult of Myanmar's political problems to resolve.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei welcomed warmer ties between Myanmar and Western countries.
Asked whether Myanmar's process of opening would undermine China's interests, Hong told a briefing: "We believe that Myanmar and the concerned Western country should strengthen contacts and improve relations on the basis of mutual respect, and we hope that steps like this will help Myanmar's stability and development."