By Manuel Mogato
CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) – Southeast Asian defense ministers on Monday expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.
North Korea is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland and has ignored all calls, even from its lone major ally, China, to rein in its weapons programs which it conducts in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a joint statement, underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula”.
They are due to meet with their counterparts from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia and New Zealand on Tuesday when North Korea, the disputed South China Sea and terrorism are expected to top the agenda.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he will talk with Asian allies about North Korea and the crisis caused by its “reckless” provocations.
Mattis’s trip to Asia, which will also include stops in Thailand and South Korea, comes just weeks before Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia as U.S. president.
In the same statement, the ministers reiterated the importance of “safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea” and called for “self restraint in the conduct of activities”.
They also vowed to work together to combat terrorism as they condemned the attack by the Maute militant group in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
The Philippines on Monday announced the end of five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.
(Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie)