- Associated Press - Saturday, August 4, 2018

SINGAPORE (AP) - Asia’s top diplomats pressed North Korea on Saturday to turn a pledge to completely dismantle its nuclear arsenal into reality amid concerns that it’s proceeding with its programs.

North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, however, hit the United States in an Asian security forum in Singapore for certain “alarming” moves, including “raising its voice louder for maintaining the sanctions against” the North.

Those moves, Ri told fellow ministers, could make an agreement with the Trump administration, including the North’s commitment to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, “face difficulties.”

China and Southeast Asian nations also faced calls in the Singapore meetings to rapidly conclude an effective nonaggression pact that can help fend off possible clashes in the disputed South China Sea. Both sides have announced an agreement on an initial draft of a regional “code of conduct” that they regarded as a milestone after 16 years of sporadic talks.

Alarm over rising trade protectionism, which Asian governments warn could stymie economic growth, dominated the meetings too, with Japan calling for the swift conclusion of a 16-nation Asian free trade agreement that does not include the United States.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the rapprochement between North Korea and the United States, along with completion of a negotiating draft of the code of conduct for the South China Sea, are breakthroughs. But he added that “like any other breakthrough in diplomatic negotiations, they may lead to something great, they may lead to nothing.”

“Now the hard work is really on the details,” Cayetano told reporters before walking into daylong meetings between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their partners the United States, China, Japan and South Korea.

ASEAN foreign ministers, along with counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea, urged the U.S. and North Korea “as well as concerned parties to continue working towards the realization of lasting peace and stability on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” according to a draft communique they were to issue after their meetings Saturday, which was seen by The Associated Press.

In the communique, they would “note” - often a diplomatic subtlety for a reminder - the “stated commitment” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name, “to complete denuclearization and its pledge to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests during this period.”

A summary of a new report by experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea, which was sent to the Security Council Friday night and obtained by the AP at the United Nations, said North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missiles programs and continues to defy the sanctions resolutions.

The North was also violating sanctions by transferring coal at sea and flouting an arms embargo and financial sanctions, the report said.

Ri said that while North Korea has “initiated goodwill measures” including a “moratorium on the nuclear test and rocket launch test and dismantling of nuclear test ground,” the U.S. has gone “back to the old, far from its leader’s intention.”

Ri made the remarks in a speech that came after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was at the same ASEAN conference, warned Russia, China and others against any violation of international sanctions that North Korea continues to face.

After agreeing on the text of the code of conduct in the disputed waters, senior Chinese and ASEAN diplomats will meet in Cambodia this month or in September, to be followed by another meeting in the Philippines, to start actual negotiations, a senior Southeast Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.

Western officials called for an early conclusion of such a pact, which they said should be legally binding and could effectively check aggressive behavior in the disputed region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “without disturbances from the outside” the negotiations on the code would shift to a “fast track.” China has accused the U.S., which has deployed aircraft carriers, ships and fighter jets to patrol the disputed waters, of intervening in an Asian dispute.

Amid the trade tensions between the United States and China and other nations, Asian ministers called for an early conclusion, possibly this year, of talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade accord that would include the ASEAN countries, along with key trading partners China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Korea.

Singapore, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations are concerned that protectionism, which could boost major Western economies, would work against free and open trade that their economies are anchored on. Tensions between the U.S. and China - the world’s two biggest economies - over tariffs on each other’s products have rattled investors in Asia.

“Given the current global situation where protectionism is on the rise, Japan would like to achieve the swift conclusion of the RCEP,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha warned that “rising anti-globalization and trade protectionism among major countries is fueling tension and threatening our aspiration for sustained economic growth.”

In a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the Singapore events, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said he told Pompeo that Asian countries like Malaysia “are quite nervous on the possible negative repercussion of the ongoing trade war.”

Pompeo responded articulately “but my objective was quite straightforward,” Saifuddin told a news conference. “I need to inform him that we are very concerned.”


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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