Philippines seeks ASEAN consensus on North Korea response

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines will seek agreement in Southeast Asia on ways to engage with North Korea, following pressure from the United States to isolate Pyongyang over its missile tests, Manila’s foreign minister said on Friday.

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The United States is expected to press the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian countries to take tougher action against North Korea, such as “drastically” reducing dealings with the already isolated state.

As the chairman of ASEAN, the Philippines in the next few days will host meetings of foreign ministers from 27 countries that include Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea and the United States, at which Pyongyang’s missile tests are expected to take center stage.

“It’s a consensus-based organization, so what I can do is after the dinner tonight, in a huddle, consult the other members,” Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters.

“I predict there will be two sides to it. So, it’s a very hard decision.”

North Korea is determined to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States and officials in Washington say its latest test on Saturday showed it may be able to reach most of the country. China has urged calm and restraint from all countries involved in the standoff.

It is unclear whether ASEAN will take a tougher line on North Korea, as advocated by the United States, or stick to its position of calling for calm and adherence to U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Some experts believe ASEAN could seek to play a role as a mediator, since it is an Asian bloc not party to the standoff.

Cayetano said the Philippines was wondering how it could respond to the United States by downgrading relations with North Korea.

North Korea has embassies and some businesses in several Southeast Asian countries, some of which trade goods with Pyongyang. It has no diplomatic presence in the Philippines.

“Actually, we’ve never upgraded,” Cayetano said. “We don’t have much engagement with them.”

A draft ARF chairman’s statement, seen by Reuters, said the foreign ministers would express “grave concerns” about the Korean peninsula.

A senior foreign ministry official told Reuters North Korea’s expected response at the meeting will be to maintain that its nuclear weapons program is a self-defense measure.

Cayetano will try to manage tensions at the ARF and further dialogue on the North Korean standoff, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a different line.

On Wednesday Duterte called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “maniac”, “fool” and “son of a bitch”.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez