U.S. 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 programs and to minimize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. In his first meeting with all members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Tillerson also called on rival claimants in the South China Sea to cease all island building and militarization while talks aimed at creating a maritime code of conduct were underway.
Briefing reporters after the meeting, Patrick Murphy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state to east Asia, said Tillerson also 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 trade pact.
Tillerson called on ASEAN countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, which has ignored demands to abandon its weapons programs and is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, and to show a united front on the issue, Murphy said.
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“We think that more can be done, not just in Southeast Asia,” he said.
“We are communicating with all countries to implement the U.N. Security Council resolutions and, most importantly, deny North Korea the revenue streams it has used to advance its provocative programs… We are encouraging continued and further steps across all of ASEAN.”
Last week in the U.N. Security Council, Tillerson called on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying it abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund its arms programs. Tillerson also warned that 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 and five have embassies there.
Murphy said Washington was not encouraging ASEAN states to formally cut diplomatic 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.
Washington wants ASEAN countries to crack down on money laundering and smuggling involving North Korea and to look at restricting legal business too.
The administration has been working to persuade China, North Korea’s neighbor and only major ally, to increase pressure on Pyongyang. U.S. officials say they are also asking China to use its influence with more China-friendly ASEAN members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to persuade them to do the same.
U.S. efforts have included a flurry of calls by Trump at the weekend to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.
Diplomats say U.S. pressure has caused some irritation in ASEAN, including Malaysia, which has maintained relations with Pyongyang in spite of the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother at Kuala Lumpur International airport on Feb. 13.
On the South China Sea, ASEAN has adopted a cautious approach recently towards China, with a weekend summit of its leaders avoiding references to Beijing’s building and arming of islands there.
This coincided with moves by China and ASEAN to draft a framework to negotiate a code of conduct. Murphy said Tillerson had stressed that this process needed “room and space” through avoiding fortifying existing claims.
The United States has conducted freedom of navigation operations to challenge South China Sea claims, greatly angering China, but has yet do so under Trump. Murphy said such operations would continue, but declined to say when the next might occur.
Murphy said Tillerson stressed that ASEAN remained a “very important … strategic partner” for the United States, something shown by Trump’s commitment to attend regional summits in the Philippines and Vietnam in November.
Analysts see growing concerns in the region that Trump has ditched former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and more countries being pulled into Beijing’s orbit as a result.