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Saturday 18 January 2020

US seeks ways to suspend North Korea from Asia forum

The ASEAN Regional Forum groups the US and North Korea with 25 other countries (Wong Maye-E/AP)
The ASEAN Regional Forum groups the US and North Korea with 25 other countries (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Washington is seeking talks on how North Korea can be suspended from Asia's biggest security forum, US and Philippine officials said.

It is part of a broader effort to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically and force it to end its missile tests and abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters in Washington that North Korea's actions have violated the conflict-prevention aims of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which groups the US and North Korea with 25 other countries.

The Philippines is hosting an annual ministerial meeting on Monday of the 27-nation ARF which will be attended by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho.

Mr Tillerson has no plans to meet Mr Ri on the sidelines of the meeting, Ms Thornton said.

With the US, Japan and South Korea expected to push for stronger actions against the North, a verbal showdown looms at the forum.

"What we have been sort of looking at is having a serious discussion of what it would take for a member to be suspended from this organisation that is dedicated to conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy," Ms Thornton said.

"I think we're going to continue to have that conversation as it regards North Korea,"

"What we've been doing is going around talking to partners about what more could they do to contribute to that increasing pressure on the regime and the increasing sort of diplomatic isolation of the regime," she said.

Two Filipino officials told the Associated Press that US officials have discussed such a prospect with Philippine officials, who told them it may be better to keep North Korea in the forum, where it can be persuaded to stop provocations through dialogue.

A North Korean delegation led by its vice foreign minister flew to Manila last week and told Philippine officials of their hope for a "favourable environment" when Pyongyang's top diplomat attends the ARF meetings in Manila, said the officials.

In response, the Philippine officials told the North Koreans they could not guarantee that because other member states, such as South Korea, Japan and the United States, would definitely raise alarm over Pyongyang's continued missile tests.

They asked the delegation why North Korea staged an intercontinental ballistic missile test last week, days before the ARF meeting, and then expected not to be confronted by other nations over it, the officials said.

Asked at a news conference in Manila if the Philippines would back efforts to remove North Korea from the ARF, department of foreign affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar did not reply categorically but said the grouping serves as a venue to air concerns and hold constructive dialogue.

There was no clear procedure in removing a member state, he said.

While it may be too late for Pyongyang to be barred from the ARF meeting this year, Ms Thornton said Washington would continue to "push the organisation to think about what kinds of suspension measures or requirements or stipulations might be included in the future".

Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, will express grave concerns over the North's continuing missile tests when they meet on Saturday ahead of the ARF meeting, according to a draft of their joint communique to be issued after the ASEAN meeting.

Founded in 1993 by ASEAN foreign ministers, the ARF aims to foster dialogue and consultation on political and security concerns among Asia-Pacific nations.

Like ASEAN, the ARF decides by consensus, meaning any initiative can be rejected by just one opposing member, a principle that can possibly hamper any US move against North Korea if the latter would be backed up by countries such as China.


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