Tillerson urges Southeast Asian leaders to ‘minimise’ ties with North Korea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 9:55pm

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday pressed Southeast Asian governments to ensure “leak-proof” enforcement of sanctions against North Korea and to prevent the pariah nation’s diplomats from conducting business that could benefit its weapons programmes.

Tillerson called on foreign ministers of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, to “minimise” the diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, “so that North Korea does not gain benefit from its diplomatic channels for its nuclear and missile aspirations”, senior State Department official Patrick Murphy said after Thursday’s meeting at the State Department.

That was the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s push to get the international community to intensify diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme before it can pose a direct threat to the American mainland.

Although China, North Korea’s traditional ally and main trading partner, is viewed as the key lever of international influence, Southeast Asian nations have diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang and small-scale trade ties, and have sometimes served as conduits for North Korean activities that violate UN sanctions.

A recent UN report found that North Korean diplomats often play key roles in commercial activities banned under Security Council resolutions aimed at starving it of technology and revenue for its nuclear and missile programmes.

“North Korea in many countries has a diplomatic presence that clearly exceeds their diplomatic needs,” Murphy told reporters.

He said, without providing specifics, that “considerable common ground was identified” between the US and Asean on North Korea. He said that the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother at a Malaysian airport, using a chemical agent, illustrated the threat it posed “in the heart of Asean”. He said this has galvanised concern in the region.

Enrique Manalo, acting foreign secretary of the Philippines, said the way forward with North Korea was through dialogue and de-escalation of tensions.

“That’s probably something we’ll look at,” Manalo told reporters. “Our immediate concern is that the tension in the [Korean] peninsula does not increase, because the more it increases the more danger of some kind of miscalculation. The last thing we would really like to see is to have a conflict break out.”

Southeast Asia’s top diplomats are clearly seeking better ties with Washington. They have been heartened by US President Donald Trump’s plans to attend an Asean-hosted summit in the Philippines in November and a regional economic summit in Vietnam.

Eight foreign ministers and two other senior officials from the 10 nations travelled across the world for the face-to-face with Tillerson. Broadly speaking, they want a sustained US presence in the region – which former president Barack Obama promised them as part of his “pivot” to Asia – to counter China’s military power and growing economic dominance over its neighbours.

“We had a very good meeting: short, sharp and to the point,” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters. He emphasised the importance of economic and trade ties between the US and Southeast Asia.

However, long-standing US allies like the Philippines and Thailand have moved closer to China, complicating US hopes for unity on issues like control over the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.