U.S. officials see no signs that North Korean officials will be willing to substantively engage during an upcoming regional meeting at a time when there is growing expectation that Pyongyang will carry out another nuclear test.
The ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, or ARF, will convene on August 5 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The ARF is a rare international gathering that North Korean officials have regularly attended since 2000.
“This is the premier regional security forum with lots of stakeholders involved,” said Jung Pak, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. She told VOA on Tuesday that transnational security issues, as well as “regional hotspots like the DPRK’s unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests,” are high on the U.S. agenda.
She was referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
In the past, the ARF platform has paved the way for senior level meetings between the United States and North Korea. There is no indication, however, that Pyongyang will engage in diplomatic talks with Washington at this year’s meeting, according to a U.S. official and other Asian diplomats who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity.
Others, including Yohanes Sulaiman, who teaches international affairs at Indonesia’s Jenderal Achmad Yani University, said they see little value in diplomatic talks with North Korea.
“Engagement is useless since North Korea will not change its behavior and will demand the U.S. to give concessions, notably lifting all the sanctions, which the U.S. will not want to do,” Sulaiman told VOA.
In 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with North Korean counterpart Paek Nam Sun on the sidelines of ARF in Bangkok. These were the highest-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. Albright visited Pyongyang months later.
The last time Pyongyang sent its top diplomat to the ARF was August 2018, when North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho met with then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Singapore. That came weeks after the Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Pyongyang has since dispatched an ambassador-level representative to the forum.
Wednesday marks the 69th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked at a Tuesday briefing about speculation by South Korean officials that the North might seize on the anniversary to conduct an expected seventh nuclear test.
“Our concerns regarding the potential for a seventh North Korean nuclear test have not abated. We have spoken publicly to these concerns for a couple of months now,” Price replied.
While the U.S. has been clear about its willingness to engage in dialogue with North Korea, the U.S. invitations have “gone substantively unanswered,” according to Price.
Besides the U.S. and North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia are members of the ARF, as are the ASEAN members.