US, North Korea to Attend Security Forum, But US to Push For Regime’s Suspension in Future

By Patrick Goodenough | August 3, 2017 | 11:07 PM EDT

The last ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Vientiane, Laos, on July 26, 2016. (Photo: ASEAN)

( – Ahead of the one annual multilateral forum that has U.S. and North Korean diplomats seated around the same table, the State Department has confirmed it plans to discuss ways of having Pyongyang suspended from future such gatherings.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, are scheduled to attend a meeting in Manila Monday of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a 27-country foreign ministers' grouping focused on regional security.

The 24-year-old ARF is the only broad international forum outside the U.N. to which the reclusive Stalinist regime belongs. Past meetings have at times provided rare openings for dialogue between North Korea and the United States.

But this year, the Trump administration is seeking to deepen North Korea’s isolation in the wake of continuing provocations including two intercontinental ballistic missile launches in recent weeks.

Briefing reporters via teleconference ahead of Tillerson’s trip to the Philippines, acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton said there were no plans for the secretary and Ri to meet.

Rather, she said, the administration has been looking at “having a serious discussion of what it would take for a member to be suspended from this organization that is dedicated to conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy.”

While it was too late to have that conversation for this year’s event, Thornton said, the U.S. would explore options relating to suspension for the future.

She also said the U.S. has been discussing with its partners what more they could do to increase pressure on, and isolation of, the regime.

The host government’s foreign ministry noted that the ARF does not have formal expulsion procedures.

“As a forum, there are no rules for us to determine if this participating country should exit,” ministry spokesman Rob Bolivar told a briefing in Manila Thursday. “It’s only when it is inviting countries to join the forum that we have certain criteria.”

Before the ARF, foreign ministers of the 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will meet over the weekend, also in Manila, where they are expected to express in a communique deep concern about North Korea’s missile tests.

While North Korea is unlikely to win much sympathy from the southeast Asian countries, Monday’s ARF does include China and Russia, both of which are resistant to U.S.-led efforts to isolate and punish the Kim Jong-un regime.

The meeting comes just days after President Trump signed a bill imposing new sanctions on North Korea, as well as on Russia and Iran.

Pyongyang’s foreign ministry on Thursday called the sanctions “no more than last-ditch efforts by those who are terrified at the series of measures taken by [North Korea] in rapid succession to develop a sophisticated nuclear force.”

“The U.S. had better deliberate on the ways to ensure its home security rather than wasting its energy on the hopeless sanctions racket against [North Korea],” the ministry said in a statement carried by the KCNA news agency.

‘Playing with dangerous toys’

Tillerson sought earlier to dial down tensions, assuring North Koreans that the U.S. is not looking for “regime change” in Pyongyang, its collapse, a speedy reunification of the Korean peninsula, or a pretext to send troops into the North.

The secretary held out the possibility of “dialogue” with the regime, although he also made clear that a condition of such talks would be that “there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region, much less to the homeland.”

Beijing welcomed the announcement – which it promptly dubbed Tillerson’s “four no’s principle” – and said it has always supported dialogue and “de-escalation” from both sides.

(State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday there had been some “misreporting” on Tillerson’s remarks about dialogue, and about “what we will or would not be willing to do.”)

The ASEAN Regional Forum meets in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2015. The U.S. was represented by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, front center. (Photo: ASEAN)

China and Russia are pushing what they’re calling a “double-freeze” proposal, under which Pyongyang would agree to voluntary moratorium on missile and nuclear activities in return for an end to “large-scale” U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and a resumption of talks on the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Previous such moratoriums, followed between 2003 and 2008 by multiple rounds of so-called “six-party talks” – involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and North Korea, often represented by Ri – did not succeed in ending the two decades-old standoff.

In contrast to Tillerson’s tone ahead of the ARF, the Philippines’ provocatively outspoken leader has not minced words about North Korea and its leader.

President Rodrigo Duterte in a televised speech Wednesday called Kim Jong-un a “son of a bitch” – an epithet he has directed in the past at President Obama and others – and accused him of “playing with dangerous toys.”

The ARF brings together ASEAN’s ten members – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Brunei – as well as 17 other countries with interests in the region, including the U.S., China, North and South Korea, Australia, India, Russia, Canada and Japan.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow