U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Thailand and Malaysia on Tuesday as Washington sought to persuade Southeast Asian allies to help impede North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Tillerson travelled to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur after attending an annual summit of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila that also focused heavily on North Korea’s latest missile tests last month.
The diplomatic push comes after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Saturday imposing new sanctions that could slash North Korea’s annual exports, worth US$2.8 billion. The sanctions were levied in response to North Korea’s two missile tests last month.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told reporters after a 45-minute meeting with Tillerson that bilateral trade between Bangkok and Pyongyang had plummeted as a result of Thailand’s compliance with various U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea.
“As a result of our strict compliance, our trade with North Korea declined by 94 percent after U.N. sanctions took place, when comparing the first half of last year and this year,” he said.
Trade between Thailand and North Korea was worth U.S. $900,000 in January to June 2017 versus $16.4 million in the same period of 2016, according to Thailand’s Foreign Ministry.
Bilateral trade peaked at U.S. $126.3 million in 2014, Thai officials said. Thailand sent home appliances, computers, chemical, rubber and plastic products to Pyongyang and imported iron, steel and chemicals from the reclusive nation.
Beside its focus on cutting funding streams for North Korea, Washington also believes that North Korean front companies are actively operating in Thailand, and U.S. officials are urging Bangkok to shut them down, Susan Thornton, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters travelling with the American diplomats.
She said Washington was also encouraging Bangkok to accept more North Korean refugees, as the kingdom has long been a transit route for defectors who journey through China, then enter Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, and often seek political asylum at the South Korean Embassy.
Thailand is among Southeast Asian nations – including Indonesia and Malaysia – that host a North Korean Embassy.
Criticisms from human rights groups
Tillerson, the highest U.S. official to visit Thailand since a military coup toppled a civilian government in 2014, was welcomed to Government House in Bangkok by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
In remarks at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, Tillerson emphasized that Washington would mark its 200 years of relations with Thailand, its oldest ally in Asia, next year.
“I think that's significant because elections are scheduled here in Thailand next year, as well, to return the country to civilian control. We certainly hope those elections proceed as scheduled,” Tillerson said, according to a transcript of his speech obtained by BenarNews.
“And I think it'll be meaningful that we're celebrating 200 years at a time when the country is returning to civilian control,” he said.
Human rights groups criticized Tillerson’s visit as an attempt to rebuild relations with the Thai junta despite its crackdown on government critics.
“It would be a practical mistake for Tillerson to not condition positive diplomatic relations on improvements in the protection of human rights,” Matthew Smith, of the Fortify Rights group, told Reuters news agency.
“Nothing was discussed about human rights,” the Associated Press quoted the Thai foreign minister as telling reporters.
Tillerson flew to Malaysia later Tuesday, the last scheduled stop of his Southeast Asian trip.
He was expected to hold meetings with Prime Minister Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi before departing Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
Kuala Lumpur’s ties with Pyongyang have not fully recovered from the shocking assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a Malaysian airport in February.
Malaysia, South Korea and the United States believe North Korean agents were behind the hit, allegedly carried out by two young Southeast Asian women who smeared a banned nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face. Several North Korean suspects fled Malaysia shortly afterward.
Malaysia resisted North Korea’s demands for the body for weeks, sparking a diplomatic row in which diplomats were expelled and Malaysian citizens briefly barred from leaving North Korea.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.