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Rex Tillerson Urges ASEAN to Minimise North Korea Diplomatic Ties

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Image: Reuters)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Image: Reuters)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pressed South-east Asian governments to ensure "leak-proof" enforcement of sanctions against North Korea and to prevent the pariah nation's diplomats from conducting business that could benefit its weapons programs.

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Washington: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pressed South-east Asian governments to ensure "leak-proof" enforcement of sanctions against North Korea 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, or ASEAN, to "minimise" 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.

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

Although China, North Korea's traditional ally and main trading partner, is viewed as the key lever of international influence, South-east Asian nations have diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang and small-scale trade ties and have sometimes served as conduits for North Korean activities that violate UN sanctions.

A recent UN report found that North Korean 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 North Korea. He said that the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's estranged brother at a Malaysian airport, using a chemical agent, illustrated the threat it posed "in the heart of ASEAN." He said this has galvanised concern in the region.

Enrique Manalo, the acting foreign secretary of the Philippines, said the way forward with North Korea 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 North Korean 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, amid uncertainty over the Trump administration's trade policy and its dealings with China.

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 travelled across the world for the face- to-face with Tillerson.


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