MANILA – Asian leaders expressed mounting concern about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development during a Tuesday meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, China and South Korea, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urging members to refrain from a return to talks with the isolated country.
According to a Japanese government spokesman, Abe told the other ASEAN Plus Three leaders that approaching Pyongyang for talks now would result in nothing meaningful, and that pressure must instead be applied until the North seeks dialogue on the basis that it will change its policies.
According to a draft of a joint statement seen by Kyodo News, the ASEAN Plus Three members were to urge North Korea to “stop provocative and threatening actions, thereby creating conditions conducive for dialogue.”
They were expected to call on North Korea to immediately comply with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and reiterate their support for the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”
The Japanese spokesman said there was discussion at the summit of the serious nature of the threat from North Korea, but refrained from going into further detail.
China, which exerts a strong influence on some ASEAN members, has advocated direct dialogue with North Korea, while Japan has called instead for pressure to be raised to the maximum possible extent in line with the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The leaders did not discuss the South China Sea, where China and some ASEAN members have overlapping territorial disputes, according to the spokesman.
In their opening remarks, the leaders stressed the importance of economic cooperation, looking back on the Asian currency crisis in 1997 that prompted the start of the 20-year-old dialogue framework.
“Financial cooperation between the ASEAN Plus Three — to boost predictability in regional and world economies, lessen vulnerability, and maintain and strengthen the system of free trade — is ever more significant amid concerns about the rise of protectionism and insularity,” Abe said.
Chairing the summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte urged his fellow leaders to “continue nurturing peaceful co-existence, particularly within ASEAN Plus Three, where we consider ourselves as one and a family.”
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said recent improvements in his country’s relations with Japan and South Korea have presented new opportunities for the ASEAN Plus Three, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for continued solidarity to combat the challenges of aging populations and climate change.
Abe told the meeting that Japan is preparing to hold a long-postponed trilateral summit with Li and Moon in the near future, the spokesman said.
He said the leaders also discussed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, currently under negotiation between the ASEAN Plus Three nations as well as Australia, India and New Zealand, but refrained from revealing details.
According to the draft statement, the leaders will urge RCEP participants to “further intensify efforts toward a swift conclusion of a modern, high-quality, and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement.”
Later in the day, leaders kicked off a meeting of the East Asia Summit in the Philippine capital, where they were expected to again condemn North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and urge all countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions.
Aside from the rising nuclear threat posed by North Korea, leaders attending the meeting were to focus on China’s assertive claims in the South China Sea, though they have yet to finalize the language concerning disputes in the waterway, according to a draft chairman’s statement set to be issued after the meeting.
The leaders were expected to condemn North Korea’s “ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons, and ballistic missile technologies” in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to the draft.
“We strongly urged the DPRK to immediately and fully comply with all relevant … Security Council resolutions and underlined that all EAS members are committed to full and thorough implementation of (Security Council) resolutions on North Korea and urged all States to do the same,” it read.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban imports of coal, textiles and seafood from North Korea, as well as limiting exports of crude oil and petroleum products to the country. The sanctions also include calls on U.N. members not to grant work permits for North Korean laborers.
The participants in the 18-nation summit, including Abe and Li, will demand that Pyongyang “abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner,” the draft said.
Trump skipped the meeting after it was delayed.
The leaders will also urge North Korea to address “humanitarian concerns of the international community, including the abductions issue,” the draft said in reference to the isolated country’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Trump and Abe are expected to push China to do more in reining in North Korea, Li is likely to call on the United States and other parties involved to resolve the issue peacefully through dialogue and negotiation.
China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade and is a major supplier of oil to the country, prompting some critics to label Beijing as an economic enabler of Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
China opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, but fears strong economic pressure could trigger a collapse, resulting in the loss of a strategic buffer zone against South Korea, a U.S. ally.
There may also be calls for China and ASEAN to work toward what some U.S. officials say is “a meaningful, binding, results-oriented code of conduct” to defuse tensions in the South China Sea.
On Monday, Li and the ASEAN leaders agreed to start consultations on the text of the code. An ASEAN diplomatic source said the two sides plan to start such talks in March in Vietnam.
However, Duterte, who chairs the East Asia Summit, has signaled a reluctance to side against Beijing over the South China Sea issue.
“Today, China is the No. 1 economic powerhouse. And we have to be friends,” Duterte told a business forum Sunday. (There are) “other hotheads who would like us to confront China and the rest of the world for so many issues. The South China Sea is better left untouched.”
China has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which over one-third of global trade passes.
China’s unilateral construction and militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea have drawn international condemnation. Beijing has also refused to comply with last year’s international tribunal ruling that invalidated the country’s claims across almost the entire sea.