Dialogue and a peace treaty between the US and North Korea are needed to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo at a forum in South Korea.
He noted that negotiations, should they get off the ground, would be tough. North Korea has made major technological breakthroughs in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development and reached a position that the US - the North's greatest perceived enemy - might find hard to accept.
Racing to complete its ICBM programme, North Korea has conducted over 30 missile tests since early last year and driven the Trump administration to consider military options for a "maximum pressure and engagement" policy.
At a discussion yesterday at the Jeju Forum, held at the popular tourist destination, Mr Yeo said: "I never believed they would give up their nuclear card. It's the only card they have... the only way to get US attention is to develop ICBM."
A US-North Korea peace pact must be signed so as to ease tensions, he said. The two sides technically remain at war as the 1950-53 Korean War, in which Washington supported Seoul, ended in an armistice. The US, which has troops stationed in the South, will not talk to the North unless it abandons nuclear weapons first.
Mr Yeo was Singapore's top diplomat and trade minister from 1998 to 2008, when South Korea pursued the North-friendly "Sunshine Policy" under liberal presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. In 2008, Mr Yeo became the first Singapore foreign minister to visit Pyongyang.
Just last month, South Koreans elected another liberal president, Mr Moon Jae In, who promises to improve inter-Korea relations after a decade of frosty ties due to the conservatives' hardline policy.
THEIR ONLY CARD
I never believed they would give up their nuclear card. It's the only card they have... the only way to get US attention is to develop ICBM.
MR GEORGE YEO, on North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile development.
In a video message to the Jeju Forum, Mr Moon said his administration will work with the international community to "bring North Korea out to dialogue through persuasion and pressure".
Into its 12th year, the forum brings together former world leaders, diplomats and academics from 70 countries to address security, climate change and other challenges facing Asia. Speakers include former US vice-president Al Gore.
Mr Yeo, now chairman of Hong Kong freight company Kerry Logistics, recalled several encounters with the North Koreans, including an episode of bird's nest diplomacy.
In August 2007, he gave the tonic to North Korea's former foreign minister Paek Nam Sun, who had diabetes and received dialysis treatment in Singapore during an official visit. When Mr Yeo visited North Korea in 2008, an official recalled the gift and said he shared a cup of bird's nest with Mr Paek before the latter's death in November 2007.
"Before that, I had a view of North Koreans being gruff and tough and very difficult. Then I realised the North Koreans, like the South Koreans, are sentimental people."
Mr Yeo said he was "heartbroken" by the closure of the inter-Korea Kaesong Industrial Complex.
The 2008 Asean Regional Forum in Singapore, he noted, was the "first and so far the last time" that the six-party-talk nations met at foreign minister level. The talk, which aimed to end North Korea's nuclear programme, has since been suspended. "It's been much too long," he said, stressing the need for dialogue with North Korea.