MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Bolstered by new U.N. sanctions, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors are joining in a fresh attempt to isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, in a global pressure campaign being cheered on by President Donald Trump.
After weeks of U.S. frustration over China’s reluctance to take action, Trump’s strategy of relying on Beijing’s help showed early signs of paying off. The White House praised China’s move to join a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution slapping new sanctions that could cut off about one-third of the North’s roughly $3 billion in annual exports.
“China and Russia voted with us. Very big financial impact!” Trump wrote on Twitter in comments echoed by the White House, where officials said the sanctions were just the start of an amped-up bid to squeeze Pyongyang diplomatically and economically.
The sanctions move played out as foreign ministers from across Asia gathered Sunday for a regional summit in the Philippines, where concerns about North Korea were already dominating the agenda.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Manila for the summit, planned several meetings with top diplomats from China and other countries central to the debate about how to stop the North’s weapons development. As he sat down with South Korea’s envoy, Tillerson said they planned to discuss next steps to ramp up pressure following the U.N. sanctions.
“It was a good outcome,” Tillerson said of the Security Council vote. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha went further, calling it “a very, very good outcome.”
Adding another layer of drama to the diplomatic maneuvering in Manila was the presence of North Korea’s top diplomat, Ri Yong Ho, who planned his own meeting with China’s foreign minister on the summit’s sidelines. The U.S. has been pushing to temporarily expel Pyongyang from the 27-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, but diplomats gathered here have been split on that proposal.
Ri’s attendance at the summit could create an awkward tension for Tillerson, who has repeatedly emphasized the Trump administration’s willingness to sit down with North Korea for negotiations — but only on the condition it abandon its nuclear aspirations. To that end, the U.S. has insisted it does not seek regime change in North Korea.
Tillerson had no plans to meet with Ri, and it was unclear whether they might cross paths informally during the summit, which includes a gala dinner attended by the foreign ministers. Ahead of Tillerson’s trip, the top American diplomat for Asia said the U.S. was expecting a “general chorus of condemnation of North Korea’s provocative behavior” as well as “pretty serious diplomatic isolation directed at the North Korean foreign minister.”
Despite deeming North Korea a top security threat, the young Trump administration has struggled to find a strategy that differs significantly from what the U.S. has tried in the past. Aside from calling for more sanctions, Trump’s approach has centered on enlisting China — the North’s biggest trading partner — and others to lessen ties to Pyongyang.
Trump’s initial optimism about China’s willingness to help gave way to public exasperation, with Trump saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had “tried” but that it “has not worked out.” Trump’s administration began floating potential plans to punish China for its trade practices in what was widely perceived as a reaction to China’s inaction on North Korea.
But in recent days, the two powers have started to paper over some of those differences. Beijing praised Tillerson for declaring the U.S. wasn’t seeking regime change in North Korea. Trump has held off, for now, on the trade actions. And China’s vote on new U.N. sanctions helped clear the way for a 15-0 vote targeting exports from the North estimated to be worth more than $1 billion per year.
The U.S. drafted the sanctions resolution and negotiated it with China following a pair of unprecedented ICBM tests by the North in July. The sanctions ban all countries from importing North Korean coal, iron, lead and seafood products, and also prohibit nations from letting in more North Korean laborers whose remittances help fund Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday defended his country’s role in putting pressure on the North. U.S. officials have said recently that upward of 90 percent of North Korean trade is with neighboring China.
“Who has been carrying out the U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning North Korea? It is China,” Wang said. “Who bore the cost? It is also China.”
Ahead of his meeting with Tillerson, Wang also called for all sides of the conflict to return to negotiations following the U.N. vote. China has long called for a two-way freeze in which North Korea would halt nuclear development, while the U.S. would stop joint military exercises with South Korea that Pyongyang views as rehearsals for a future invasion.
Yi told reporters at the summit that the North Korean diplomat’s presence in Manila was a positive, enabling him to “hear the voices from other sides.” Speaking in Chinese, Yi also said that Ri, the North’s envoy, “also has the right to share his opinions.”
By JOSH LEDERMAN
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerejano in Manila, Catherine Lucey in Bridgewater, N.J., and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.