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Pyongyang’s top diplomat won’t attend ARF

July 26,2019
The resumption of denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington faces more complications with North Korea’s latest launch of short-range missiles Thursday and the North’s top diplomat unlikely to attend a key regional forum in Thailand next week.

Thailand, the host of this year’s Asean Regional Forum (ARF) set to kick off in Bangkok next week, was recently informed that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will not be attending, according to diplomatic sources Thursday.

The ARF, which involves the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and their dialogue partners, is a rare multilateral security forum that is regularly attended by North Korea and also by top diplomats of all six-party nations including China, Japan, Russia, the United States and South Korea. Thailand from next Monday through Saturday will host a series of Asean-related meetings including the ARF and the East Asia Summit.

North Korea’s foreign minister skipped the forum in 2001, 2003 and 2009, but has always sent another diplomat to attend instead. It is unclear who Pyongyang will send to attend the ARF this year.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is set to visit Thailand next Wednesday to Aug. 3 to attend the ARF and Asean-related meetings.

The ARF produces a chairman’s statement annually which usually mentions North Korea. In the past, the statement was a means for countries to condemn North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations, however last year, it welcomed the inter-Korean joint agreement signed at Panmunjom on April 29, 2018, and the first North-U.S. summit held on June 12 in Singapore. They also committed “to the full implementation of all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and international efforts to bring about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula which will contribute to peace and stability in the region.”

The ARF had been anticipated to be a venue for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Foreign Minister Ri to possibly holds talks to resume the denuclearization dialogue, which has made no progress since the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in late February failed to produce any deal.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in their sudden third meeting on June 30 at the demilitarized zone initially agreed to resume working-level talks in the next two to three weeks.

However, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, and his Pyongyang counterpart have yet to hold a lower-level meeting which could have been used to schedule high-level talks between Pompeo and Ri on the sidelines of the ARF.

Since Kim and Trump’s third meeting, North Korea instead appears to be veering away from creating an atmosphere conducive for negotiations.

Pyongyang’s launch of two short-range missiles into the East Sea Thursday comes after it has been protesting against a joint military exercise between Seoul and Washington scheduled for next month. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman last week warned that the joint exercise could affect North-U.S. working-level talks.

On Tuesday, leader Kim Jong-un revealed a new 3,000 ton submarine seen to have strategic capabilities. Analysts have pointed out the unpredictability and dangers of North Korea’s development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, as they are mobile and hard to trace.

North Korea also was revealed Wednesday to have refused to accept food assistance from South Korea. Seoul had planned to deliver 50,000 metric tons (55,115 tons) of rice through the World Food Programme (WFP).

It was also disclosed that day that North Korea is detaining two South Korean sailors after a Russian fishing vessel drifted into the North’s water last week. Pyongyang has yet to respond to Seoul’s request for their return. The two South Koreans, in their 50s and 60s, were aboard the Russia-flagged Xiang Hai Lin as fishing supervisors, along with 15 Russians and had been transferred to a port in Wonsan on the North’s eastern coast.

The revelations came as John Bolton, the White House national security adviser who is a hard-liner on North Korean policy, was on a two-day visit to Seoul Tuesday and Wednesday.

Kim in a speech to the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly on April 12 said that he will wait “until the end of the year for the United States to make a bold decision” to come up with a new plan. Some analysts indicate that Pyongyang is prodding Washington to speed along a decision.

“The related authorities of South Korea, the United States and Japan are closely sharing information and analyzing the situation,” the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said through a statement Thursday on the North’s missile launches that morning, and working at “diplomatic efforts to resume negotiations to produce progress in denuclearization.” It will also communicate with China and Russia, the ministry added.

Lee Do-hoon, the South’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, held separate phone conversations with Biegun and his Japanese counterpart Kenji Kanasugi immediately after the North’s launches that morning.

The ARF could also be an opportunity for the top diplomats of South Korea, United States and Japan to have a trilateral meeting on the sidelines, amid a spat over Tokyo’s export restrictions on Seoul.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “Nothing has been decided in terms of a South Korea-U.S.-Japan meeting, but we are working on it.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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