By HYUNG-JIN KIM
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — The upcoming regional security summit in this tiny Southeast Asian sultanate is the sort of venue where North Korea has often managed to open up sideline discussions with Seoul and Washington. This time, while there will be plenty of talk about Pyongyang, there is little chance of substantive talk with it.
North Korea has sought negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea but has ignored their demands that it first honor prior commitments to move toward nuclear disarmament. At high-level diplomatic talks beginning this weekend, it can expect the cold shoulder from those countries and others frustrated by Pyongyang’s insistence on developing nuclear weapons.
After a December long-range rocket launch, a February nuclear test and weeks of threats to launch nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States, North Korea earlier this month made a surprise offer for separate talks with its rivals. Government delegates from the two Koreas met and agreed to hold senior-level talks on non-nuclear issues, but the agreement collapsed because of a protocol dispute. The United States responded coolly to Pyongyang’s appeal for direct negotiations, which some analysts view as a familiar effort to win aid in return for ratcheting down tensions.
“While it is certainly preferable for North Korea to pursue diplomatic rather than missile or nuclear tests, all of North Korea’s neighbors by now are well aware of North Korea’s history of diplomatic initiatives as just another tool through which North Korea has sought to consolidate gains following periods in which North Korean brinkmanship has driven political tensions to high levels,” Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, wrote in a blog post.
He added that agreeing to hold talks with the North “and come back to the table as though nothing has changed since the last six-party talks were held in 2008 would imply acceptance” of Pyongyang’s rocket launches and nuclear tests.
Whether Washington and its allies ignore Pyongyang’s diplomats, North Korea’s atomic aspirations are on the agenda in talks surrounding the 27-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, which takes place Tuesday in the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.
A draft of the forum chairman’s statement says that those meetings would reaffirm the importance of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and that most participants urged North Korea “to abide by its obligations” under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
and commitments made in a joint statement following six-party talks in 2005.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from South Korea, China and Japan will attend the forum and could hold private meetings that touch on Pyongyang. North Korea is expected to send its longtime foreign minister, 80-year-old Pak Ui Chun, to the meeting, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
Because the ASEAN forum gathers diplomats from all six countries involved in long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations — the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas — it has previously provided a chance to use informal, sideline talks to break stalemates over the nuclear issue.
In 2011, top nuclear envoys from the two Koreas met on the sidelines of the forum in Bali, Indonesia, and agreed to work toward a resumption of the dormant six-nation talks, though the negotiations remained stalled. The Koreas’ foreign ministers held sideline talks in 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2007, and top diplomats from Pyongyang and Washington also met privately in 2004 and 2008.
North Korea will likely seek similar talks in Brunei, but South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters Tuesday that officials from Seoul aren’t considering meeting the North Korean foreign minister on the sidelines. In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that he knew of no discussions planned between Kerry and Pak in Brunei, and that such talks would be “fairly unusual.”
Analysts said North Korea appeared to be repeating its pattern of following aggressive rhetoric with diplomatic efforts to get outside aid and concessions.
Chang Yong Seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said Pyongyang must do something to show it’s refraining from continuing nuclear activities, such as announcing some disarmament steps, if it wants to have talks.
Despite its recent bid for diplomacy, North Korea has raised renewed worries about a nuclear program that outsiders estimate to include a handful of crude nuclear bombs. Pyongyang followed up its February nuclear test, its third since 2006, with an announcement that it planned to restore all of its atomic bomb fuel producing facilities. The February test drew widespread international condemnation and tightened U.N. sanctions, which subsequently led the North to issue a torrent of warlike threats and sharply raise tensions on the divided peninsula.
Recent satellite photos show signs of new tunnel work at North Korea’s underground nuclear test site, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said in an analysis Tuesday. The analysis said it doesn’t appear to indicate another atomic blast is imminent but suggests the country has continued to work on its nuclear weapons program even as tensions eased.
Other issues expected to draw keen media attention in Brunei include South China Sea territorial disputes and relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest economies.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia over the South China Sea and its potentially oil- and gas-rich islands. Several claimants want group discussions in order to create a legally binding “code of conduct” to prevent clashes in the sea, but Beijing has not clearly stated when it will sit down with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to discuss such a nonaggression pact.
China prefers one-on-one negotiations with each rival claimant to resolve the territorial dispute, something that would give it an advantage because of its sheer size and clout.
Southeast Asian countries believe that “having bilateral negotiations with a strong guy would be a losing game,” said Bae Geung-chan, a professor at the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
The regional forum chairman’s statement said ministers welcome efforts to work toward a code of conduct, and commended ASEAN nations and China for their work to maintain peace and stability.
Analysts say China and the U.S. probably won’t have sensitive talks in Brunei that could change their relations. Their leaders recently held an unusually lengthy informal summit in California, during which both countries expressed optimism that the closer personal ties forged between the leaders could stem the mistrust between the world powers.
During the summit, President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were in broad agreement over the need for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.