US, Asean agree on tighter sanctions vs North Korea

Getty Images

Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States can't always condition its foreign relationships and national security efforts on countries adopting us values like human rights.

Last week, Mr Tillerson called on all countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying that North Korea abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund its arms programmes.

Tillerson warned countries that if they did not do so, Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea.

Tillerson told reporters at the start of the Washington meeting that he and his counterparts would discuss North Korea. "President Obama told President Trump this is going to be your greatest challenge that you're going to have to manage, and he was right", Tillerson said.

"We've been ... leaning hard into China to test their willingness to use their influence, their engagement with the regime in North Korea", Tillerson said.

Over the last 20 years, Tillerson said, the United States "just kind of lost track of how we were doing".

His comments came amid concerns that President Donald Trump is de-emphasizing human rights - most recently inviting Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has waged a deadly extrajudicial war on drugs, to the White House in order to talk about North Korea.

While Tillerson made some assurances that budgetary downsizing would not "leave anybody out", the core of his message was that the State Department needs to dramatically narrow the focus of its mission: improving U.S. security and economic growth above all other considerations.

"We are communicating with all countries to implement the U.N. Security Council resolutions and, most importantly, deny North Korea the revenue streams it has used to advance its provocative programs..."

"These are really important relationships to us, they're really important alliances, but we've got to bring them back into balance", he said, speaking without notes and walking around the stage in the State Department auditorium. "And they wanted to make it clear early on that as a strategic partner - ASEAN has been a strategic partner of the U.S. - they wanted to continue with the United States administration, the new administration, this partnership, this relationship, and to ensure sustained USA engagement in the region".

The Philippine President also said Trump asked him to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to seek Beijing's intervention in the increasingly tense situation in the Korean peninsula.

"We're all on this ship - on this voyage - together", Tillerson said. USA officials are also asking China to urge more China-friendly ASEAN members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to do the same. Over the last two decades, he said, Washington had "lost track" of whether post-Cold War alliances were still serving US interests.

This coincided with moves by China and ASEAN to draft a framework to negotiate a code of conduct.

A week ago, leaders from ASEAN sidestepped criticizing China over its expansion in the disputed South China Sea, in a mildly worded statement after the summit in the Philippines.

Said another veteran diplomat, who also requested anonymity, "It appeared that his intention was to inform us that our mission has changed from what it has been since 1945".

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