Cut funding to North Korea, minimise ties – Tillerson tells Asean
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Cut funding to North Korea, minimise ties – Tillerson tells Asean

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Thursday to do more to help cut funding streams for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and to minimise diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

In his first ministerial meeting with all 10 Asean members, Tillerson also called on nations with competing claims in the South China Sea to cease all island building and militarisation while talks aimed at creating a maritime code of conduct were under way.

US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia Patrick Murphy said Tillerson stressed Washington’s security and economic commitment to the region, amid doubts raised by President Donald Trump’s “America First” platform and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

SEE ALSO: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is one man down, but what does this mean for Asia?

Tillerson called on Asean countries to fully implement United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang, which is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US, and to show a united front on the issue, Murphy said.

“We think more can be done, not just in Southeast Asia,” he told reporters. “We are encouraging continued and further steps across all of ASEAN.”

Last week, Tillerson called on all countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying North Korea abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund its arms programmes. Tillerson also warned Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea if countries did not act themselves.

All Asean members have diplomatic relations with North Korea whille five have embassies there.

Murphy said Washington was not encouraging Asean states to formally cut ties, but to examine the North Korean presence “where it clearly exceeds diplomatic needs.”

He said some countries were already doing this and also looking at the presence of North Korean workers, another significant revenue earner for Pyongyang.

Keeping tension from increasing

Some officials of Asean members, speaking to reporters, acknowledged concerns about North Korea, but also cited concerns about trade relations with the US.

Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, whose country currently chairs Asean, said of the US call to minimise relations with Pyongyahng, “We haven’t really discussed that among the Asean countries, so that’s probably something we will look at.

“Our immediate concern is to try and ensure the tension on the peninsula doesn’t increase…,” Manalo said.

The last thing we would like to see is to have a conflict break out due to some miscalculation.” – Manalo

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said sanctions would have to be fully implemented, but North Korea’s presence in his country is already minimal.

Asked if that could be further reduced, he said: “I won’t say never, but at this point in time that’s not the issue – we will stick with the UN Security Council’s resolutions.”

Balakrishnan, whose country signed the TPP, stressed the importance of US-Asean business ties – an annual trade of US$100 billion supporting half a million US jobs and US$274 billion of investment.

“Southeast Asia is replete with economic opportunities and it’s too big to miss out on,” he said.

His remark highlighted growing concern in Asia Trump has ditched former President Barack Obama’s economic “pivot” to the region by abandoning the TPP, something analysts say has led to more countries being pulled into China’s orbit.

Murphy said Tillerson stressed Asean remained a “very important … strategic partner,” which is shown by Trump’s commitment to attend regional summits in the Philippines and Vietnam in November.

Manalo called the meeting with Tillerson and Trump’s travel plans “encouraging” signs.

‘Room and space’

Washington wants Asean countries to crack down on money laundering and smuggling involving North Korea and to look at restricting legal business too.

It has been working to persuade China, North Korea’s neighbour and only major ally, to increase pressure on Pyongyang. US officials are also asking China to urge more China-friendly Asean members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to do the same.

US efforts have included a flurry of calls by Trump to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.

Diplomats say US pressure has caused some irritation in Asean, including Malaysia, which has maintained relations with Pyongyang despite the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in February.

SEE ALSO: Malaysia deports 140 N. Korean workers after Kim Jong Nam murder sparks diplomatic row

On South China Sea, Asean has adopted a cautious approach recently, with a weekend summit avoiding references to China’s building and arming of artificial islands there.

This stance coincided with moves by China and Asean to draft a framework to negotiate a code of conduct. Murphy said Tillerson had stressed this process needed “room and space” through avoiding fortifying existing claims.

The US has conducted freedom of navigation operations to challenge South China Sea claims, angering China, but not yet under Trump. Murphy said such operations would continue, but declined to say when the next might occur. – Reuters