NAYPYITAW – North Korea was called upon Sunday by a large majority of foreign ministers who attended Asia’s largest security forum to immediately abandon its nuclear arms and missile programs.
While the key topics at the forum, including regional maritime issues, were nothing new, at least one noteworthy aspect this year was the debut of North Korea’s new Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on the regional diplomatic stage.
The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes Japan, South Korea, the United States and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is the only multilateral gathering of its kind taken part in by North Korea’s foreign minister.
Amid a lack of progress in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions and in the wake of its recent ballistic missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Ri, who assumed the ministerial post in April, took part in the meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other ministers said North Korea’s continued provocative actions constitute a threat to regional peace and security, telling Ri that they must be stopped without delay, according to diplomats involved in the closed-door meeting.
Among other proposals, Kerry told Ri that North Korea must freeze all nuclear activities and allow inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, one of the diplomats said.
But Ri, who had previously served as North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland, in return said his country’s pursuit of nuclear development is due to Washington’s “hostile” policy toward Pyongyang, the diplomat said.
Ri was known as a guardian of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when he studied at an international school in the European country in the 1990s.
Despite nagging concerns over its nuclear and missile programs, Japan last month lifted some sanctions on North Korea in return for Pyongyang’s opening of a fresh probe into the fate of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the forum, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called on North Korea to exercise self-restraint and also made the argument that the abduction issue is a critically important one for the international community, an official accompanying him said.
Amid concerns that Japan’s relaxation of its unilateral sanctions could undermine coordinated efforts to pressure North Korea to rein in its provocative actions, Kishida said the issue not only pertains to “the sovereignty of Japan and the lives and safety of its citizens, but also the international community as the abductions have violated fundamental human rights,” according to the official.
Another major issue at stake at the ARF, attended also by top diplomats from the European Union and countries including Australia, China and India, was continuing tensions in the South China Sea.
China’s claims to nearly all of the sea have caused disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and several other countries in the region.
The U.S., Australian and some ASEAN ministers “indirectly criticized” China’s recent actions apparently aimed at altering the status quo, according to the diplomat.
Many ministers touched on the urgent need to reduce the risk of accidents and miscalculations through consultations and peaceful means to avoid scenarios that could lead to a crisis, the diplomats said, with some pointing out that the safety of sea lanes is vital for the global economy.
China’s increasingly assertive and unilateral approach in its territorial claims, most recently evidenced by its deployment in May of a huge oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, has led to growing concerns in the region.
Instead of continuing to push for a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea as some ASEAN members want, Kerry told reporters he has proposed voluntary cessation of provocative acts to China and the 10-member ASEAN.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated Beijing’s long-held position at the ARF that it does not want “outside actors” involved in territorial issues, adding that the location where the oil rig was installed falls within its sovereign jurisdiction, according to the diplomats.