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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea welcomed at ASEAN forum a year after being ignored

US denuclearization deal helps lighten mood at regional security conference

North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, left, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Singapore on Friday.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- A regional security conference in Manila 12 months ago was a nervy affair, coming on the back of two North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Delegates shunned their counterparts from Pyongyang.

A year on, and the mood is much brighter.

The North Koreans, led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, on Friday were welcomed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Singapore. They are expected to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and officials from nations across the region at a dinner hosted by the city state.

Both Ri and Pompeo took part in the unprecedented summit two months ago between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un.

In Manila last year, Ri made a speech against the U.S. campaign of maximum pressure.

"We should have the ability to target the heart of the U.S. with intercontinental missiles if we want to check the U.S.'s military invasion effectively," Ri said. "We are ready to teach lessons to the U.S. with our nuclear force if the country is against us with its weapons."

By contrast, this weekend's conference takes place days after the White House said Trump had received a "nice letter" from Kim. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president would respond to the North Korean leader and didn't rule out a second summit.

While tensions have cooled, North Korean delegates were still not being treated like other members of the forum. No announcement has yet been made on any official meeting between Ri and Pompeo, as both sides struggle to narrow gaps on how to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear arms and facilities.

The conference comes after media reports that U.S. intelligence has found evidence the North continues to illegally build ICBMs. Trump had previously dismissed the danger from the North's nuclear capabilities in a tweet following the June 12 Singapore summit, saying North Korea was "no longer a Nuclear Threat."

The president has been keen to flaunt his friendship with Kim, a source of concern among lawmakers frustrated with a lack of concrete progress toward denuclearization. These lawmakers see the concessions offered by the North so far as simply time-stalling tactics.

In a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo defended the White House's strategy and insisted that the U.S. "has not been taken for a ride."

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