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US to Southeast Asian Bloc: Continue Maximum Pressure Campaign Against North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, speaks with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov in Singapore, Aug. 4, 2018
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, speaks with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov in Singapore, Aug. 4, 2018

The United States is rallying Southeast Asian countries to continue a maximum pressure campaign against North Korea, until the Korean Peninsula achieves complete denuclearization.

Ahead of the annual ASEAN summit that begins November 11 in Singapore, Washington is urging the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to ease United Nations sanctions, and instead continue to deny the revenue streams that North Korea has enjoyed around the region.

"The United States continues to work with governments around the world, including the countries of ASEAN, to ensure all nations are fully implementing U.N. sanctions obligations," a State Department spokesperson told VOA recently. "The pressure campaign will continue until the DPRK denuclearizes."

Washington warned it would continue the enforcement to punish companies and individuals that engage in illegal trading with Pyongyang.

"We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectorial goods banned under U.N. Security Council resolution, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end the DPRK's illegal nuclear and missile programs," added the State Department spokesperson, who used the official name for North Korea.

The comments come as the talks this week between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean official Kim Yong Chol in New York were postponed, with no reason given.

On October 25, the U.S. Treasury Department designated and accused two Singapore-based entities and one individual of money laundering through the U.S. financial system to evade sanctions against North Korea. As a result, their interests in property in the U.S. are blocked and Americans are generally prohibited from dealing with the designated persons.

Most ASEAN members maintain good relations with North Korea. Many of the nations host North Korean embassies and five have embassies in Pyongyang. And experts say ASEAN has not seen it as a priority to entirely cut off North Korean access to economic activities.

"ASEAN has been great at taking verbal positions at its vacuous regional fora, but has not been so helpful in cutting access to North Korea. Even in Singapore, we have seen incidents where North Korean operatives conducted business" and had free reign gathering intelligence," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

A recent ASEAN statement was seen as toning down language on North Korea's nuclear program.

On August 4, a joint statement by foreign ministers from the Southeastern Asian bloc urged North Korea to fulfill its stated commitment to "complete denuclearization," and dropped the terms "verifiable" and "irreversible," which were found in a 2017 statement. The seemingly toned down language comes after U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a June summit at Singapore.

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, says many ASEAN diplomats in Washington do not know what to make of the Trump administration's stance on North Korea.

"On the one hand, they see Washington continuing to push the maximum pressure sanctions campaign, but at the same time, the administration is eager for meetings and dialogue while South Korea presses for stronger ties with the Kim regime," Kazianis said. "ASEAN leaders, at best, see a lot of mixed signals and little clarity coming out of the Trump Administration, and I think that worries them."