SE Asia voices 'grave concern' on N. Korea despite appeal

Ayee Macaraig, Martin ABBUGAO
Kim Jong-Un has shrugged off international warnings and economic sanctions in his relentless drive as leader to turn the North into a credible -- and feared -- nuclear-armed state

Southeast Asian countries on Friday expressed "grave concern" over North Korea's nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches, despite Pyongyang's appeal for support in its tense standoff with the United States.

In a rare move, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho wrote to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations appealing for backing in its row with Washington to prevent what it warned could be a "nuclear holocaust".

But regional foreign ministers meeting in Manila on Friday issued a stand-alone statement criticising North Korea for its two atomic weapons tests last year and subsequent launch of ballistic missiles.

"ASEAN expresses its grave concern over the escalation of tension in the Korean Peninsula, including the DPRK's two nuclear tests in 2016 and subsequent ballistic missile launches," said the statement using North Korea's formal name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The bloc "is mindful that instability in the Korean Peninsula seriously impacts the region and beyond".

Tensions have soared in the region in recent weeks in the wake of a series of North Korean missile tests and tough rhetoric from the administration of President Donald Trump on the isolated nation's rogue weapons programme.

Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula amid signs the North could be preparing for a sixth nuclear test, and US officials have said all options are on the table.

The ASEAN ministers "strongly" urged North Korea "to comply fully" with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and international laws aimed at curbing its nuclear programme, and called for the resumption of negotiations on the issue.

The North quit six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions in 2009.

ASEAN in its statement, however, also urged "all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint in order to de-escalate the tension and refrain from actions that may aggravate the situation".

Diplomats in Manila said the other parties apparently refers to the United States and regional powers China, Japan and South Korea -- all key strategic players in the region.

Southeast Asian leaders are then due to meet on Saturday, when the situation on the peninsula is also expected to be discussed.

- 'Brink of war' -

In his letter to ASEAN, a copy of which was obtained by AFP on Thursday, North Korean foreign minister Ri warned the situation on the Korean Peninsula was "reaching the brink of war" because of Washington's actions.

One diplomat said it was the first time, as far as he could recall, that North Korea has written to ASEAN to seek support on the issue.

Ri had urged the bloc's chief to inform the group's foreign ministers "about the grave situation" on the peninsula "and give them a proper proposal", while criticising at length US-South Korean military exercises.

He said the exercises were justification enough for the North to develop atomic weapons and warned that Pyongyang also had the capability to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike against its enemies.

North Korea is known to have close ties with some ASEAN members, including Cambodia and Laos.

Pyongyang's relations with ASEAN member Malaysia were seriously damaged with the assassination in Kuala Lumpur in February of Kim Jong-Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

South Korea has blamed Pyongyang for the killing, accusing its agents of using a banned nerve agent.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a UN Security Council meeting on Friday to push for a tougher response to North Korea and pile pressure on China to rein in its ally.