Asean offers US a rare chance to meet N Korea

By Jonathan Head
South East Asia correspondent

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
North Korea's envoy Ri Yong Ho (centre) is attending the Asean forum and meeting regional ministers

Amid high tensions between the US and North Korea, all eyes are now on a regional forum attended by top envoys from both countries. The BBC's South East Asian correspondent Jonathan Head explains the summit's significance and recalls a previous US-North Korean encounter.

There is no other forum where top-level US officials find themselves face-to-face with their North Korean counterparts.

The annual Asean Regional Forum (ARF) brings together 27 countries from the Asia Pacific region, and offers opportunities for all kinds of useful bilateral conversations, given the presence of foreign ministers from China, Russia, Japan and the US.

But it is the chance of face-to-face meetings with the North Korean foreign minister which raises the most tantalising possibilities.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Will Rex Tillerson get a chance to chat to his North Korea counterpart?

Arranging any other North Korean-US meeting is a complex business, involving a huge amount of negotiation over the protocol, agenda and even the meaning of such a meeting. They rarely happen.

But at the ARF in Manila, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, will be sitting in the same room as his North Korean counterpart.

Will they chat? Shake hands? Ignore each other? Given the high stakes, journalists will watch eagerly to try to interpret any contact at all between the two sides.

It brings to mind a previous ARF summit, which I attended in Brunei in July 2002. At the time US-North Korean tension had also escalated sharply.

President George W Bush harboured an intense dislike for the brutalities of the North Korean regime. Hardliners in his administration believed he should stand up to such regimes, not negotiate with them.

In the post 9/11 climate, Mr Bush was inclined to divide the world into friends and enemies of the US. And his intelligence services had uncovered evidence that North Korea was cheating on its commitment, agreed under President Bill Clinton, not to develop its embryonic nuclear weapons programme.

There had been no high-level contacts between the two countries since Mr Bush had come to office. The president had just included North Korea in his memorable Axis of Evil speech.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Bush (left) had sent Colin Powell (right) to the Asean forum in Brunei in 2002

North Korea had been admitted to the ARF just two years earlier, at the height of then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy of rapprochement towards the North.

At that time the deal President Clinton had struck with the North Koreans - to fund a civilian nuclear energy programme for Pyongyang in return for dismantling its plutonium facilities - was still intact.

The US had even sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in October 2000, to meet Kim Jong-il.

But by the time the first North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun was due to attend an ARF summit, the one in Brunei in 2002, relations had already deteriorated.

So there was a great deal of speculation over whether Colin Powell, who had replaced Ms Albright as secretary of state, would meet, or even talk to him.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Paek Nam-sun was representing North Korea at the 2002 forum

Journalists then, as now, were kept in a media centre far from where the senior officials were meeting.

A select few photographers and cameramen record the handshakes of the more important participants, but many of the meetings are only confirmed later by officials.

By the afternoon of 31 July, news had leaked out - there had been a meeting between Mr Powell and Mr Paek. It dominated headlines from the forum that day. But what had they discussed?

A large crowd of us gathered for the briefing given by the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Questions about the encounter flew from the floor. He looked a little sheepish, and explained that it was an informal get-together, during a coffee break, which had lasted just 15 minutes.

What with protocol and translation, he said, a lot of the time was used up expressing pleasantries. The North Koreans had indicated a willingness to have further high-level talks.

Mr Powell had agreed, but said these would need to address some tough issues. And that was it.

That was not the full picture. Colin Powell was a moderate within the Bush administration, who believed engaging North Korea, even with some evidence it was not complying with its commitment to freeze its nuclear programme, was the only constructive way forward.

He had a room prepared at the ARF for the meeting, and the North Koreans had been alerted by US officials well in advance. He had not informed President Bush of his plan, although he did apparently tell National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who may have passed it on to Mr Bush.

The secretary of state had, after conversations with President Bush, come up with what he called a "Bold Approach" to re-engaging with North Korea, which would stress the US willingness to help with humanitarian needs in a country still recovering from the devastating famines of the 1990s, while carefully finding ways to rebuild trust over the nuclear programme.

That was what he wanted to convey to Mr Paek. In the meeting he stressed that the US did not wish to attack North Korea.

As we now know, Colin Powell's impromptu act of diplomacy went nowhere. Hardliners within the Bush administration around Vice-President Dick Cheney were reportedly furious about the meeting.

Mistrust over North Korea's nuclear programme persisted. And the US invasion of Iraq may well have convinced the North Koreans that only by obtaining a nuclear weapons capability could they be sure of deterring Mr Bush from attempting regime change in Asia.

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