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Friday, May 5, 2017, 12:40

Tillerson urges ASEAN to minimize DPRK diplomatic ties

By Associated Press

Tillerson urges ASEAN to minimize DPRK diplomatic ties
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (center) poses with ASEAN foreign ministers prior to a luncheon at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2017. (NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday pressed Southeast Asian governments to ensure "leak-proof" enforcement of sanctions against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to prevent the pariah nation's diplomats from conducting business that could benefit its weapons programs.

Tillerson called on foreign ministers of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to "minimize" 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. DPRK is also referred to as North Korea.

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

The US Secretary of State called on foreign ministers of ASEAN to "minimize" diplomatic relations with Pyongyang

Southeast Asian nations have diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang and small-scale trade ties, and have sometimes served as conduits for DPRK activities that violate UN sanctions. A recent UN report found that DPRK 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 programs.

"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 DPRK. He said that the February assassination of a DPRK national at a Malaysian airport, using a chemical agent, illustrated the threat it posed "in the heart of ASEAN." He said this has galvanized concern in the region.

Enrique Manalo, acting foreign secretary of the Philippines, said the way forward with DPRK was through dialogue and de-escalation of tensions. He said China has an "important role" to play, and ASEAN has not really yet discussed reducing the presence of DPRK diplomatic presence in their countries.

"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 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 traveled for the face-to-face with Tillerson. Broadly speaking, they want a sustained US presence in the region — which President Barack Obama promised them as part of his "pivot" to Asia — to counter China's military assertiveness and growing economic dominance over its neighbors.

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

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