North Korea, South China Sea Dominate Regional Security Meeting in Manila

Felipe Villamor
170808-PH-cayetano-620.jpg Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayatano (left) meets with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum conference in Manila, Aug. 7, 2017.

Pyongyang’s missile tests and Beijing’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea dominated a regional security meeting in the Philippines on Monday, with the United States and two other powers urging ASEAN to take a robust stance on both issues.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano met Monday in Manila with North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho to “personally” drive home a collective message of consternation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about the communist state’s recent nuclear and missile tests that defied a slew of U.N. resolutions.

“The statement was not borne out of lost friendship but is because of frustration that there seems to be no opening for discussions or dialogue to address the impasse on the issues in the Korean Peninsula,” Cayetano told Ri, referring to “grave concerns” about Pyongyang’s nuclear program that were articulated in an unusually strong joint statement by ASEAN two days earlier, according to a press release.

The Philippines and the nine other ASEAN nations all have diplomatic ties with North Korea, including five that maintain embassies there. But in recent days and months, the United States has led international calls for Pyongyang to be isolated on the world stage because of its stepped-up nuclear weapons testing program.

Last week, the U.S. even suggested that North Korea be suspended from the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), whose annual meeting this year took place Monday in the capital of the Philippines, this year’s chair of ASEAN. North Korea is one of 27 members of ARF.

The encounter between the top Filipino and North Korean diplomats occurred on the sidelines of the ARF meeting. Cayetono said that, on behalf of ASEAN, he wanted to convey to Ri the importance of engaging North Korea in dialogue through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). But, he said, it was equally important for Pyongyang to reciprocate and be open to lowering tensions centering on the Korean Peninsula through diplomatic means.

“[T]here is a sentiment across ASEAN that for this engagement to be truly productive and beneficial not just to ASEAN but to our region and the world, we need to ensure that there is a mutual openness and communication amongst us,” Cayetano said.

“We say this in the spirit of our common goal of maintaining peace and security for our peoples,” he added.

Trilateral statement

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised the tone of the “very strong” statement sent out by ASEAN over the weekend. He said it demonstrated the bloc’s commitment to supporting a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and that it was “a statement that’s probably stronger than any we’ve seen from ASEAN in terms of a view on this particular issue,” according to a transcript from the State Department.

However, Tillerson and his counterparts from Australia and Japan on Monday issued a trilateral statement calling on the international community to “implement strictly” U.N. Security Council resolutions that have placed North Korea under sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.

They asked other countries to make stronger efforts to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and “urged ASEAN member states to maximize pressure on North Korea.”

Australia, Japan, and the United States also condemned “in the strongest terms” North Korea’s recent ballistic missile activity.

“These actions blatantly violate multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions and clearly demonstrate that North Korea increasingly poses new levels of threat to regional stability and global security,” they said.

‘A legitimate option for self-defense’: North Korea

Ri, Pyongyang’s top envoy, said his country fully understood ASEAN’s concerns, but signaled that it was not ready to sit down for talks with its rival South Korea, according to an account of the Filipino-North Korean meeting as reported by Yonhap, Seoul’s official Yonhap news agency.

He apparently was referring to Seoul’s recent offer to hold military-to-military talks to ease tensions.

South Korea’s offer “lacks sincerity,” Ri Yonhap said during his discussion with Cayetano.

At the plenary session of the ARF meeting, Ri defended his government against international criticism over its nuclear weapons program.

“The DPRK’s [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] possession of nukes and ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) is a legitimate option for self-defense in the face of a real and clear nuclear threat posed by the U.S. against DPRK,” Ri said, according to a statement issued by North Korean officials to reporters in Manila.

Ri blasted the U.S. for having allegedly “rigged up several sanctions resolutions” at the Security Council, to make it appear that the issue was between two Koreas, which have been at war technically since 1953.

He said that the development of nuclear weapons was meant to deter the U.S. from invading North Korea. Its Korean Central News Agency at the same time stepped up its angry anti-American rhetoric.

“We are ready to retaliate with far bigger actions to make the U.S. pay a price for its violent crime against our country and people,” it warned on Monday, two days after the Security Council approved new sanctions against the country in response to two intercontinental ballistic missile tests carried out last month by the regime in Pyongyang.

The sanctions include a stop on North Korean exports of coal, a vital revenue stream for Pyongyang.  The resolution was the eighth of its kind in 11 years, since Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.

South China Sea

In their trilateral statement, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. also expressed concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and vowed to continue with sailing and flights over the contested region.

“The ministers voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions,” it said.

China, Taiwan, and four members of ASEAN – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – all have territorial claims in the sea, and overlapping claims have been a source of tensions. The sea is strategically important because it is home to a third of the world’s shipping lanes.

The statement called on all claimants to the potentially rich sea region to “refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation.”

It said it acknowledged a consensus that was struck over the weekend between China and the ASEAN countries to reach a “framework” for a “code of conduct” in the disputed region.

But Australia, Japan and the U.S. urged both the Southeast Asian bloc and China to ensure that a code be “finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”

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