US to assure Asean of engagement and pressure on North Korea

At the East Asia Summit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet his counterparts from Asean, as well as Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia to address the region's "most critical security challenges." PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be bringing a message of American engagement in the Indo-Pacific to Asean and East Asia Summit ministers in Singapore this week.

This is despite awkwardness over Cambodia's recent uncontested poll, which the United States has sharply criticised.

A senior US State Department official told reporters on Tuesday (July 31) that Mr Pompeo, who chairs the US's Lower Mekong Initiative, "will reinforce our partnership on transboundary cooperation with the five Lower Mekong partner countries."

The discussions with Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam will cover many topics, including water resource management, "which is quite timely given the recent dam tragedy in Laos" and severe flooding in Myanmar, the official said.

At a ministerial meeting with the 10 Asean member states, Mr Pompeo will "underscore the importance of our strategic partnership with Asean" and highlight the US commitment to Asean centrality, the official said.

And at the East Asia Summit, Mr Pompeo will meet his counterparts from Asean, as well as Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia to address the region's "most critical security challenges."

The official listed, among others, the denuclearisation of North Korea, the South China Sea dispute, terrorism, maritime and cyber security, as well as the crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The issue of North Korea may loom large in the wake of reports of petroleum transfers in violation of sanctions.

Mr Pompeo will underscore that all United Nations member states must implement Security Council sanctions and resolutions to maintain pressure on Pyongyang.

The official said: "That… will be addressed… as we all strive for the ultimate goal, and that is the final, fully verified denuclearisation of the DPRK (North Korea), as agreed to by Chairman Kim (Jong Un)."

Analysts have noted an intriguing shift in terminology, from "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" or CVID, to "final, fully verified denuclearisation" or FFVD.

Yet North Korea should not dominate the meetings, Dr Balbina Hwang, visiting professor at Georgetown University, told The Straits Times.

"The reality is that North Korea's ongoing missile development should be a surprise to no one. The North Koreans are master negotiators, and… this does not violate either the Singapore or inter-Korean statements," she said.

"This is precisely the problem," she added.

No one, and especially North Korea, has yet to define in concrete terms what "denuclearisation" means.

In this context, North Korea had shown good faith by delivering on the promise to return the remains of American war dead, and by having military officials meet with their South Korean counterparts, Dr Hwang said.

News of North Korea's further development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) was no surprise, agreed Dr Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

"North Korea will deny it and claim the US has not yet made any concessions to the North," he said.

"The language of FFVD or CVID… means less than the persisting tendency to submit to North Korea's insistence on the denuclearisation of the 'Korean Peninsula' which means mutual reciprocal disarmament - withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, Japan, and also withdrawal of US nuclear assets from the region."

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will also be in Singapore to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with Asean. But Mr Pompeo has no meetings scheduled with the Iranians, State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told The Straits Times.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will also be in town for meetings with Asean and its dialogue partners, but Mr Pompeo will not be meeting one-on-one with him, the Russian news agency TASS reported.

As part of his trip, Mr Pompeo will also meet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia and President Joko Widodo in Indonesia.

"Many in the region have had questions about the direction of US economic engagement with the region," said Mr Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the South-east Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Asean officials...will be listening carefully for more details about how the US plans to engage the Indo-Pacific economically."

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