The United States is bringing its Southeast Asian allies on board to tackle what senior officials described as the number one national security priority for the U.S. — North Korea's nuclear proliferation and missile threats — when foreign ministers from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather Thursday in Washington.
A senior State Department official told VOA that Washington is urging Southeast Asian countries to "cut diplomatic ties" with Pyongyang.
Another official told VOA that while there has been some success regarding the "increased inspections to disrupt North Korea's illicit activities," more could be done.
"Throughout Asia, we've got a lot of work do with ASEAN nations," said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his remarks to State Department employees Wednesday, adding that Washington is "re-solidifying" its "leadership with ASEAN on a number of security issues."
Tillerson is hosting foreign ministers from ASEAN on Thursday at the State Department, which comes just days after top diplomats from those countries met in Manila and issued a statement that criticized North Korea's provocation.
Ties established with North Korea
Many nations from this bloc have developed diplomatic relations with the reclusive and rogue regime.
For example, North Korea has embassies in 8 out of 10 ASEAN nations, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Tillerson asked countries to "suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea" last Friday at a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting.
The top U.S. diplomat also urged other countries to increase financial isolation against North Korea, saying Washington will not hesitate to punish third-country entities and individuals supporting Pyongyang's illegal activities.
The UNSC had discussed the need to help countries build up capacity to detect North Korea's underground networks that are fueling its weapon systems, according to State Department's acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton.
U.N. report critical of sanctions
Although past United Nations resolutions on paper have placed severe restrictions against North Korea's access to the financial system, an earlier UN report suggested those sanctions have little effect on the ability of North Korean networks, such as Pan Systems Pyongyang, to finance its operations.
"Pan Systems Pyongyang used the name of its foreign investment partner [Pan Systems Singapore] not only to obscure its activities, but also to gain access to foreign currency accounts in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which otherwise would not be available to local companies under domestic banking rules," said the U.N. report.
The report also asserted Pan Systems Pyongyang maintains bank accounts in other Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia, through which sufficient access to international financial systems are maintained.
A week ago, leaders from ASEAN sidestepped criticizing China over its expansion in the disputed South China Sea, in a mildly worded statement after the summit in the Philippines.
Experts said Tillerson's Southeast Asian counterparts hoped that members of President Donald Trump's foreign policy team could bring some stability and discipline to the administration's engagement with Asia.
"If they cannot, ASEAN members will have little choice but to take out insurance, reducing reliance on the United States and accommodating greater Chinese leadership in the region," said John Ciorciari, director of University of Michigan's International Policy Center.
U.S. focus should be on North Korea
Some Washington-based experts said the U.S. needs to put more focus on countering North Korea's threats than the maritime disputes.
"My overall view is that while both of these challenges are serious, the North Korean threats are actually perhaps even greater in some ways," Brookings Institution's foreign policy senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon told VOA.
He added that Beijing is a "rising power flexing its muscles" in the South China Sea, though Washington knows how to deal with China, and "there are ways for our strategy to keep pushing back in a firm and professional way that makes sense."
Activists urged the U.S. not to overlook human rights abuses in Southeast Asia in Washington's dealings with those countries.
"The ratbag of dictators, autocrats, and juntas that populate ASEAN's ranks view issues of transparency, human rights, good governance as obstacles rather than foundations of good governance," said Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia division Phil Robertson.
VOA Mandarin Service's Libo Liu contributed to this report.