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S. Korea seeks to highlight N. Korea's nuke threats at regional security meeting

All News 09:00 July 22, 2016

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, July 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will make a strong push to highlight the threats that North Korea's nuclear ambitions are posing both to the Asian region and the global community as a whole during the upcoming regional security meeting, observers and government officials said Friday.

Top diplomats from 27 Asia-Pacific countries and the European Union are scheduled to meet in Vientiane for a series of talks led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations starting this weekend. South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will also attend the event.

In particular, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the region's largest security meeting, will be held on Tuesday in the Laotian capital. The forum is a rare international occasion that North Korea attends along with all the other countries involved in the long-suspended six-part talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear ambitions.

The gathering comes amid heightened tensions caused by the North's continued provocative behavior and a diplomatic landscape complicated by territorial disputes over the South China Sea standoff and potential ramifications from South Korea's recently-announced plan to deploy an advanced missile defense system on its soil to counter North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats.

South Korea believes that it is important that the international community sends a strong and consistent message at the ARF meeting that the North should refrain from carrying out provocations and eventually give up its nuclear ambitions altogether.

"We are making all possible diplomatic efforts to draw a chairman's statement from the ARF that would help bolster global coordination (against the North's nuclear and missile ambitions)," Cho June-hyuck, foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in a recent press briefing.

The North conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a long-range ballistic missile test in February, which drew strong condemnation from the international community.

The United Nations Security Council adopted the toughest-ever resolution 2270 to punish the North for seeking nuclear weapons and engaging in banned ballistic missile tests.

Despite growing pressure and sanctions from outside, the North has not eased its push for nuclear ambitions. Speculation is mounting that Pyongyang might carry out a fifth nuclear test sooner or later.

Against this backdrop, attention is being paid to what North Korea's new foreign minister Ri Yong-ho has to say at the ARF.

Though his trip to Laos has yet to be confirmed, he is expected to attend the ARF meeting, which would be his debut on the multilateral diplomacy stage since taking office as Pyongyang's top diplomat in May.

Ri is known to be open-minded and leaning toward dialogue, an assessment that raised expectations that his appointment as the foreign minister might be signaling that the reclusive country would try to engage the U.S. and other countries in talks.

The ARF might be a good chance for the North to have meetings with its allies and other countries, but the North's continued provocations in recent months would not help its diplomatic efforts.

"The mood (for the North) has become quite different from last year." a government source said. "It would not be easy at all (for the North to arrange bilateral meetings this time)."

He added an official meeting is unlikely to be held between the two Koreas on the sidelines of the forum.

South Korea is currently working on getting the threats from the North and its nuclear ambitions well reflected in a chairman's statement, but it could face obstacles this year, a government source close to the matter said.

"This year, we could have more difficulty than last year," the official said. "There are many things that Lao can decide on its own as a chair."

His remarks suggested that since Laos has close ties with North Korea and the ASEAN follows a rigorous consensus-building process in reaching any agreement, it would be tough for Seoul to reflect its stance in the wording of the statement related to Pyongyang's provocative behavior.

Other major issues expected to be discussed include the South China Sea controversy involving China and other Southeast Asian countries. The rift might remain fresh following the recent landmark ruling by an international tribunal on the territorial dispute.

Last week, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that there is no legal ground for China to claim its "historical rights" to the area within the so-called nine-dash line, which covers a large portion of the South China Sea. The suit was lodged by the Philippines in 2013.

China immediately rejected the ruling, saying that it does not accept or recognize it. The U.S., known to support Manila's position, welcomed it, saying that the ruling is "final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines."

In that many stakeholders including China, Southeast Asian countries and even the U.S. will join the upcoming meeting, the South China Sea issue is expected to take center stage in Laos.

Observers said that South Korea could be pressed to clarify which side it is on with regard to the territorial issue during the security forum. That would present a diplomatic dilemma that the Seoul government wants to avoid especially after its decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system drew strong opposition from China.

Beijing has objected to the move, saying that the THAAD would hurt its strategic security interests. Chances are China and Russia might ramp up their offensive against South Korea over the THAAD issue.

Experts say that a bilateral meeting between Yun and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi could serve as an opportunity to see if their bilateral ties remain on solid footing or not.

The government said that nothing has been decided about any bilateral meeting schedules including talks with China.


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