No diplomatic breakthroughs are expected to reduce tensions over the North Korea nuclear threat at this week’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila, even though it is one of the few global events where all the major countries involved will participate.
“It’s more likely to see a showdown between China, Russia versus the U.S. on who bears the greatest responsibility for dealing with this issue,” said Southeast Asia security analyst Carlyle Thayer with Australia's Defense Force Academy in Canberra.
The United States, North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan are all sending high level delegations to the annual regional security summit, organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that includes Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to the Philippines for the ARF then visit Thailand and Malaysia, where he will discuss "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maritime security, and counterterrorism,” the State Department said.
North Korea is rapidly advancing it capability to target the U.S. mainland or anywhere in the world with a nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Independent experts say Pyongyang’s second successful ICBM test last week demonstrated the ability to reach the midwest U.S. city of Chicago. While the test revealed re-entry technology problems, the program is advancing faster than previously expected, and some say North Korea is less than a year away from developing a verifiable miniaturized nuclear warhead to fit on an ICBM.
“Unless something really extreme is done North Korea will end up with that missile and nuclear capability that they want. It’s really just an engineering problem at this point,” said Grant Newsham, with the Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his security team had focused on working with China, the North’s key trading partner, to fully implement sanctions. But Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently expressed frustration with Beijing's refusal to impose crippling economic pain that would force Pyongyang to seek relief through compliance.
President Trump has indicated he will soon sign a new bill passed by the U.S. Congress authorizing new sanctions against Chinese entities that do illicit business with North Korea.
The Trump administration has also emphasized all options, including military action, are being considered to stop the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican member of the armed services committee, said on Tuesday "a war with North Korea would be devastating to the region, but it may be the only way to stop their missile program."
However the U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson on Tuesday sounded a more reassuring tone, saying the U.S. does not blame China for the situation in North Korea and reaffirmed that Washington does not seek regime change in Pyongyang.
“We're trying to convey to the North Koreans: we are not your enemy. We are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond,” he said.
Dialogue at some point
Tillerson said he would like to sit and have a dialogue with North Korean leaders at some point, but at the ASEAN forum he is not expected to hold a formal meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.
North Korea called its latest test a “stern warning” to the United States and maintains it needs a strong nuclear deterrent to defend against a possible U.S. invasion.
With tensions so high and adversarial positions so entrenched, Southeast Asia security analyst Carlyle Thayer said, any chance for diplomacy will have to happen quietly, away from the press, and likely with the help of a neutral country.
“The policy has to be secret. If we know about it, it’s going to be sunk because opposition will grow to it,” said Thayer.
During the Clinton administration, Vietnam held sideline meetings with the United States and North Korea, covertly shuttling in envoys from both counties so they could talk privately.
Ri’s participation at the ARF is a positive step said Thayer. North Korea had refused to attend a recent ASEAN forum and tried unsuccessfully to remove the denuclearization issue from the agenda.
There is also speculation that an inter-Korean meeting could take place on the sidelines. The liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May, has tried to reach out to the North, but offers of dialogue, cooperation and humanitarian aid have all gone unanswered.
The U.S. delegation is also expected to urge ASEAN members to take stronger measures to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear program, by cutting down the number of North Korean embassy personnel and workers allowed in their countries. But the consensus driven organization is reluctant to take punitive action, and is expected to call for all sides to reduce tensions through dialogue, more in accordance with China’s position.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.