Updated at 4:16 p.m. ET on 2017-08-05
The ASEAN bloc called Saturday on North Korea to refrain from carrying out more nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, saying these contributed to escalating tensions in Asia.
At an annual meeting in Manila, foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed their collective “grave concerns” about a slew of missile tests carried out by Pyongyang, including two ICBMs launched in July, and a pair of nuclear tests it conducted in 2016.
“These developments seriously threaten peace, security and stability in the region and the world,” the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries – which include the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – said in a joint statement.
“In this regard, we strongly urge the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to immediately comply fully with its obligations under all relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions,” the statement added, referring to resolutions that ushered in international sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The ASEAN ministers called for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and for all parties to exercise “self-restraint” to deescalate the tensions and create an atmosphere conducive to talks.
“We support initiatives to improve inter-Korean relations towards establishing permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula,” their statement said. “ASEAN stands ready to play a constructive role in contributing to peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.”
Later on Saturday, the Security Council in New York unanimously passed a resolution that imposes even tougher sanctions aimed at depriving the communist state of up to $1 billion in annual revenue from exports of coal, iron, iron ore and other products, news reports said. The resolution was drafted by the United States, a permanent member of the council.
Engaging Pyongyang in dialogue
The meeting of Southeast Asian ministers in Manila took place two days before the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the region’s only security forum, which North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was expected to attend and defend his country’s nuclear weapons tests.
Apart from the 10 ASEAN members, North Korea is one of 17 other countries including China, South Korea and the United States that participate at ARF meetings.
But ASEAN’s statement on North Korea stopped short of endorsing calls that Pyongyang be suspended from the ARF, as officials at the U.S. State Department had suggested this past week.
Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman for the Philippine foreign ministry, said the statement was “consistent” with the regional bloc’s position on the Korean Peninsula.
“ASEAN wants North Korea to know ASEAN is concerned, but also wants to engage North Korea,” he said, adding he hoped “this dialogue will deescalate tension.”
On U.S.-led calls to expel Pyongyang from ARF, he said the forum operated on consensus and, for that to happen, all of its 27 members had to be on board.
“This is an expression of concern over the developments in the Korean Peninsula,” Bolivar told a news conference. “Foreign ministers want to give ASEAN a strong voice on this issue.”
At a meeting in Washington in May, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed his ASEAN counterparts to fully implement and adhere to U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Beforehand, he had called at the Security Council for countries to cut diplomatic and financial ties with Pyongyang.
All 10 countries in ASEAN have diplomatic relations with North Korea, including five that have embassies in Pyongyang. Malaysia, however, downgraded bilateral ties in February following the assassination on Malaysian soil of the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Apart from the North Korea issue, the ministers touched on the regional terrorist threat, climate change and diplomatic wrangling on overlapping claims in the South China Sea during Saturday’s two-and-a-half hour closed-door meeting, Bolivar said.
The ministerial meeting, however, had “very limited time for more in-depth” discussion of the issues raised, but the Philippines, as this year’s chair of ASEAN, wants to see a “legally binding code of conduct” in the disputed sea region.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the other security-related issues are expected to be discussed at other meetings between ASEAN and members of ARF in Manila that run through Monday.
‘North must stop continuous provocations’
Ahead of the meetings, outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte branded Kim Jong Un as “crazy” for “playing with dangerous toys” that endangered the entire region.
The United States, whose Secretary of State, Tillerson, was expected to meet with Duterte on the sidelines of the Manila meetings, had earlier warned that all concerned countries had limited time, and said that the North Korean threat necessitated a strong response.
On Saturday, South Korean Foreign Minister Tang Kyung-Wha said he would like to meet his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho and tell him that they “must have a dialogue and that the North must stop the continuous provocations.”
“Moreover, I will tell him that to build a peace system – North Korea must respond to the two proposals we recently suggested,” he told reporters in Manila on Saturday.
He apparently was referring to his government’s proposal of holding military and humanitarian talks with the north that contrasted with the more hardline U.S. position of stepping up sanctions and military pressure on the isolated communist state.
Should those talks occur, they would be the first military-to-military dialogue in three years. South Korea is hoping these will ease tensions along the border.
“The fundamental reason for THAAD deployment is for our national interest and for the sake of our national security,” Tang said, referring to Seoul’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense supplied by the U.S.
Seoul had recently tested the missile shield successfully amid tests carried out by North Korea.