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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has continued the country's missile development in spite of U.N. sanctions.   © Reuters
International relations

ASEAN countries at impasse on North Korea

Friendly ties soured for some by Kim Jong Nam murder

MANILA -- Association of Southeast Asian Nations members are reportedly at odds over how to address mounting international controversies over North Korea at an upcoming summit after the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother on their turf.

Preliminary talks kicked off Wednesday ahead of the summit, which is set to end Saturday. A draft copy of the chairman's statement seen by The Nikkei contained a heading for North Korea but no actual content under it. These post-meeting statements are typically drafted at working-level talks beforehand, then fine-tuned based on discussion by leaders, foreign ministers and other senior government officials.

A communique released after an unofficial meeting of foreign ministers in February expressed "grave concern" over a ballistic missile launch by North Korea and urged Pyongyang to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. A diplomatic source says similar language will likely be included in the upcoming statement. But ironing out differences in member countries' positions is proving difficult.

All 10 ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea. This rare connection between the reclusive country and a major economic bloc has served as a building block for ASEAN's growing independence in the diplomatic arena.

But the assassination in February of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia disrupted this friendly relationship. A clash between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur over how to handle his remains led to a diplomatic row, with North Korea at one point barring Malaysian nationals from leaving the country.

Malaysia handed over Kim Jong Nam's body and allowed North Koreans suspected of involvement in the murder to return home, effectively bringing the matter to a close for the two sides.

However, Malaysia is not the only country involved. The two suspects accused of killing Kim Jong Nam, now standing trial in Malaysia, are from Vietnam and Indonesia. Both countries are seeing a sudden backlash against Kuala Lumpur's conduct, aimed at resolving the conflict with North Korea without regard for the two neighbors. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. is apparently pressing the Philippines, the summit's host, to take a strong stance in the statement against Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile development in defiance of criticism from the international community.

But other ASEAN members such as Laos remain on good terms with North Korea. What sort of compromise can be reached given these varying stances remains to be seen.

The draft statement also touches on territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving China and ASEAN members. The communique released after a September summit said leaders "remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the region, referring to Beijing's military buildup.

The current draft softens this language and removes a reference to the "importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions."

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