North Korea is set to face a diplomatic barrage over its nuclear weapons program at a security forum in Manila starting this weekend, with the United States seeking to build a “chorus of condemnation.”
Foreign ministers from all the major powers involved in trying to curtail North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s atomic ambitions will be in the Philippine capital for the event, offering a rare chance for face-to-face talks on the crisis.
The United States and China have been wrestling with how best to respond to North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test last week, which deepened global fears over Kim’s nuclear weapons strike capabilities.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will seek to build diplomatic pressure on the North in Manila, with Washington pushing for another round of tough United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang, according to one of his top aides. “What we would expect to see this year at the meeting would be a general chorus of condemnation of North Korea’s provocative behavior,” Susan Thornton, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state, told reporters in Washington.
The annual forum, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), brings together the top diplomats from 26 countries and the European Union for talks on political and security issues in Asia-Pacific. This year they will express “grave concern” over North Korea’s missile tests, according to a draft copy of the chairman’s statement obtained by AFP.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also set the stage for the talks on Wednesday with a blistering critique of Kim. “He is playing with dangerous toys and this crazy man, do not be fooled by his face, that chubby face that looks nice,” Duterte said, as he warned Kim could trigger a nuclear war that would destroy Asia. “That son-of-a-whore maniac, if he makes a mistake then the Far East will become an arid land.”
The draft of the chairman’s statement flagged the North, to be represented by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho, will offer a typically defiant response to the diplomatic pressure. “The DPRK [North Korea] claimed during the meeting that its nuclear weapons program is an act of self-defense against a hostile policy towards it,” said the statement, which is due to be released at the end of the meeting on Monday.
Tillerson will not hold direct talks with Ri in Manila, according to Thornton. But Tillerson is expected to meet with the top envoys from the other nations in stalled “six-party” negotiations aimed at reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear program: China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The 10 ASEAN foreign ministers will first hold talks among themselves on Friday and Saturday, during which the region’s other major flashpoint issue—rival claims in the South China Sea and China’s growing presence there—will be a top agenda item.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, including waters approaching the coasts of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing has in recent years expanded its presence in the sea by building artificial islands capable of holding military bases.
ASEAN will endorse a framework on a code of conduct for the sea, which has been brokered with China, and call for talks to create a formal pact to begin “as soon as possible,” according to a draft of their joint statement obtained by AFP.
However, while the Philippines and China have been promoting the framework as an important development, analysts caution it is only a minor step that comes 15 years after negotiations began. “Of course a code is only as good as its implementation and enforcement, and we are still a long way from seeing it in action,” said Ei Sun Oh, an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Philippines, under previous president Benigo Aquino, had been a leading voice against China’s expansionism in the sea and used ASEAN events to pressure Beijing. But Duterte, who took office last year, immediately reversed that policy. He has sought to play down the dispute in favor of building warmer ties with China and attracting billions of dollars worth of Chinese investments and aid.