Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other countries urged North Korea to fulfill its commitment to complete denuclearization during the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, in Singapore over the weekend.

However, North Korea’s leading diplomat urged confidence-building measures from the US, while evading talks with key regional players.

“The ministers urged all concerned parties to continue working towards the realization of lasting peace and stability on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula … They also urged [North Korea] to fulfill its stated commitment to complete denuclearization and its pledge to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests,” the Monday ARF statement, published by forum host Singapore, read.

The statement also said that during the ARF talks, some ministers expressed their readiness to engage in dialogue with the North on others issues, such as humanitarian concerns.

In addition to ASEAN ministers, the meeting was attended by senior diplomats from countries including China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

Diplomatic hide and seek

According to South Korean media, the annual ARF is the sole regional forum in which the North’s top diplomat participates. But North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho did not hold formal meetings, and only spoke briefly, with the representatives of Japan, South Korea or the United States – key proponents of North Korea denuclearization – according to various media reports.

Ri rejected a request for a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, according to South Korean media reports. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told Japanese media that he had a “brief” chat with Ri, but did not reveal details. Nor did Kono comment on an issue much discussed in Japan: Whether North Korea might agree to a summit between national leader Kim Jong-un and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he had a “quick, polite exchange” with Ri. However, Sung Kim, the US ambassador to Manila and previously to Seoul, did hand Ri a personal letter from US President Donald Trump, for Ri to pass on to Kim.

On Saturday, Ri delivered a speech to the forum, which was reproduced by Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency and reported by website KCNAWatch.

North Korea pleads for reciprocity

In it, Ri said: “Confidence building is the key to the full implementation of the Joint Statement,” referring to the statement signed by Kim and Trump after their summit in Singapore in June. “Confidence is not a sentiment to be cultivated overnight. In order to build full confidence between [North Korea] and the US, it is essential for both sides to take simultaneous actions and phased steps to do what is possible, one after another.

“What is alarming … is the insistent moves manifested within the US to go back to the old (sic), far from its leader’s intention.”

Pyongyang – as Ri reiterated – seeks a “phased and simultaneous” approach to denuclearization, in which Washington eases sanctions as North Korea progresses. But Washington maintains that sanctions relief can only follow denuclearization and demands Pyongyang honors what it calls its commitment to denuclearization.

Ri also noted that in April, North Korea had made public, “a new strategic line of concentrating all its efforts on economic construction,” adding, “the international community should respond to our goodwill measures … with constructive steps that would encourage and promote peace and economic development of the Korean Peninsula.”

But while Pyongyang has declared a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, blown entrances to its underground nuclear test site and started dismantling a satellite launch site, Washington has insisted that sanctions pressure on the regime be maintained.

On Saturday, Pompeo had accused Russia of violating UN sanctions, saying that related allegations – that Russia continued to import North Korean labor – would be formally raised with Moscow. And on Friday, the US Treasury blacklisted a Russian bank, Agrosoyuz, for conducting a transaction with North Korea’s foreign exchange bank.

Despite their apparent divergence of views, Ri and Pompeo did manage a handshake and a smile for the cameras at the ARF photo session. According to the US State Department, Pompeo told Ri at the time: “We should talk again soon,” to which Ri responded: “I agree, there are many productive conversations to be had.”