MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines and North Korea are set to sign bilateral agreements seen to herald a new era in relations between the two countries during the meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) which opens in Manila on Sunday.
The agreements will focus on “enhanced diplomatic ties,” diplomatic sources said.
“This is the closest the countries have come in terms of diplomatic ties,” the sources added.
Expanding its relationship with the Philippines is part of the communist country’s attempt to rehabilitate its image before the international community, the sources said.
North Korea, which became a member of the United Nations in 2001, has presented a security problem for the international community because of its nuclear program. In October 2006, it announced that it had detonated a nuclear bomb.
In response, the United States froze North Korean bank assets and the so-called “Six-Party Talks” aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the security issues connected with the North Korean nuclear program, were scuttled.
Five of the six-party members—China, South Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan—are full dialogue partners of Asean. North Korea is the sixth member.
The agreements come five months after President Macapagal-Arroyo, at the end of the last Asean Leaders Summit in Cebu, urged Pyongyang to “actively address the security and humanitarian concerns of the international community, including food shortages and critical insufficiencies of medical and other humanitarian services in North Korea, and the abduction issue.”
The Philippines established diplomatic ties with North Korea in 2000. At the time, the Philippines was the only Asian nation without any formal ties with Pyongyang.
Another benefit to be seen in the agreements is in the area of security, another diplomat said.
Stop arms transfer
“Closer ties between the two countries could prevent any transfer of firearms from North Korea to armed groups in the country like Muslim and communist rebels,” the source said.
North Korea has been a lucrative source of arms for armed groups in the Philippines, whether insurgents or criminal groups, the source said.
The North Korean delegation, led by Foreign Affairs Minister Pak Ui Chun, was scheduled to arrive yesterday. Pak will hold a one-on-one meeting with Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo today, to be followed by expanded bilateral meetings.
The two sides are expected to sign the diplomatic agreements at around 11 a.m. today.
Pak will call on President Arroyo in the afternoon.
The Asean foreign ministers are holding talks in Manila ahead of next week’s annual meeting of the region’s main security body, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which groups Asean and its key partners, including the European Union, the United States, China, India and Australia.
Diplomats said the 10-member Asean will look at toughening security rules for atomic energy when they meet next week to review a treaty on keeping nuclear weapons out of the region with the cooperation of the world’s nuclear powers.
While no violation of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone treaty has been detected by Asean, the bloc has failed to convince key nuclear powers—the US, China, UK, Russia and France—to endorse it.
Respect nuke-free zone
Under a five-year plan outlining steps to better ensure treaty compliance, to be adopted next week, Asean plans to ask those countries to at least promise to respect it.
With several countries looking at nuclear power to meet their energy needs, Asean also wants to ensure atomic material and technology do not get used for non-peaceful ends, said Romulo who will chair the one-day ARF meeting on Aug. 2.
Under the wide-ranging 1997 treaty, Asean members may not develop or test nuclear weapons and pledged not to allow ships carrying those weapons from passing their waters.
Now as nations look at building more civilian nuclear power plants, Asean wants to tighten the rules to address proliferation concerns, said Romulo.
Asean members Indonesia and Vietnam have both announced plans to build nuclear power plants in the next few years.
The possibility of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists has also been a concern. With a report from Cynthia Balana, AFP and AP