Top Australian and Japanese officials say North Korea sanctions enforcement ‘critical’ despite easing tensions

Kyodo

Japan and Australia agreed Wednesday to keep up pressure on North Korea to denuclearize through the strict enforcement of U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, despite easing tensions over its arms development program.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, along with their Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Christopher Pyne, said in a joint statement in Sydney that it is “critical” for all U.N. member states to “continue to implement their obligations fully” under the sanctions regime.

The ministers agreed that they need to beef up measures to prevent North Korea from evading those sanctions through illegal ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products and other goods at sea.

During the talks, known as “two-plus-two,” they also confirmed to work toward an early conclusion of a new security agreement, which will enable the two countries to conduct joint military drills and disaster relief operations more smoothly.

Still, the ministers welcomed North Korea’s diplomatic engagement that started this year with South Korea and the United States, which has led to Pyongyang’s stated commitment to “complete” denuclearization.

But they regarded it as too early to relax the sanctions under relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions that were imposed following a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests, given that North Korea has yet to take any concrete action to abandon its weapons programs.

Payne, speaking at a joint news conference following the meeting, said both sides agreed to “maintain pressure” on North Korea and that they “need to see real steps to complete, verifiable (and) irreversible denuclearization of the (Korean) Peninsula.”

“It continues to be important for the international community to be united in fulfilling the resolutions,” Kono said. “When doing so, there must be no loopholes.”

In regard to concluding a security agreement, since the 2014 launch of negotiations on what is known as a visiting forces agreement, Japan and Australia have pledged an early conclusion of the talks numerous times.

If realized, it would be the first such agreement for Tokyo after the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which details the legal status of U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. Japan views Australia as a “quasi-ally” and “special strategic partner,” and is considering that strengthening their relationship in the field of security is becoming more important to promote Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

In this respect, the ministers also reaffirmed the importance of promoting trilateral cooperation with the United States to deal with challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, while expressing concern about the situation in the East and South China seas, where China’s maritime assertiveness has been growing.

Payne disclosed that the Japanese prime minister will visit the northern Australian city of Darwin in November to hold a high-level bilateral economic dialogue.

Abe is likely to travel to Darwin before or after his trip in mid-November to Singapore to attend annual meetings involving members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as to Papua New Guinea to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Payne and Pyne took up their posts following the inauguration of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in late August, while Iwaya assumed his post after Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle on Oct. 2. Kono retained his portfolio.

It is the eighth time for the two countries to hold a two-plus-two meeting since the framework started in 2007. The previous meeting took place in April last year in Japan.