Tillerson urges ASEAN ministers to cut N Korea funding, minimise diplomatic ties

Reports say all ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea and five have embassies there.

Tillerson urges ASEAN to cut North Korea funding, minimize ties
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (C) poses with ASEAN foreign ministers before a working lunch at the State Department in Washington, U.S., May 4, 2017. Reuters

Aurged Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Thursday to put efforts to cut funding streams for North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and to minimise diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

In his first ministerial meeting with all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Tillerson also called on nations with competing claims in the South China Sea to cease all island building and militarization amid talks about creating a maritime code of conduct.

Patrick Murphy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, 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.

According to Murphy, Tillerson called on ASEAN countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, which is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, and to show a united front on the issue.

"We think that more can be done, not just in Southeast Asia," Murphy told Reuters. "We are encouraging continued and further steps across all of ASEAN."

Tillerson called on all countries last week to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. He said that North Korea abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund its arms programs. U.S. Secretary also warned that Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea if countries did not act themselves.

Reports said all ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea and five have embassies there.

Murphy clarified that Washington was not encouraging ASEAN states to formally cut ties with Pyongyang, 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. It is another significant revenue earner for Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, some officials of ASEAN members acknowledged concerns about North Korea and said that they are also concerned about trade relations with the United States.

Referring to the U.S. call to minimize relations with Pyongyang, Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said: "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. ... The last thing we would like to see is to have a conflict break out due to some miscalculation," Manalo said.

In response to Tillerson's comment to cut North Korea funding, 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.

When he was 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 U.N. Security Council's resolutions."

Balakrishnan stressed the importance of US - ASEAN business ties as Singapore has signed the TPP. The country has an annual trade of US$100 billion supporting half a million U.S. jobs and US$274 billion of U.S. investment. "Southeast Asia is replete with economic opportunities and it's too big to miss out on," he said.

Murphy said Tillerson stressed that 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.