Manila, Philippines (CNN)The foreign ministers of North Korea and South Korea spoke face-to-face at a gala in Manila Sunday night, according to South Korean media reports, at a time of heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s missile program.
South Korea’s Kang Kyung-wha exchanged words with her North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap and broadcaster YTN. The annual security dialogue draws in 27 countries, including North and South Korea, the United States, China and Russia.
Moon has long been a proponent of greater dialogue with Pyongyang in order to diffuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As an aide to President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon helped craft the so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which called for an increase of engagement in the political and economic spheres.
In July, South Korea’s Defense Ministry proposed talks between representatives of the two countries’ militaries at Tongil-gak on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two rivals. North Korea has yet to respond to the overtures.
Foreign policy of South Korea from 1998 to 2008
Policy of engagement with North Korea on economic and political issues
Two South Korean Presidents traveled to Pyongyang
Earned South Korean President Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize
Fewer North Korean nuclear and missile tests during this period
Ultimately failed to stop North Korean nuclear program
“Ultimately, President Moon Jae-in is a strong believer on dialogue and wants to get things on a different track with North Korea,” said John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of international Studies in Seoul.
According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing an unnamed government source, Ri told Kang during their meeting Sunday that South Korea’s offer of talks “lacked sincerity.”
At the same forum a year ago, South Korea’s former foreign minister Yun Byung-se also talked briefly with Ri.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is attending the forum, skipped the gala dinner where the two ministers spoke but is expected — along with the 24 other top diplomats from region — to be in the same room as North Korea’s representative at a session later Monday. However, they’re not expected to meet one-on-one.
Tillerson: We’ll talk when the conditions are right
At a news conference in Manila Monday, Tillerson said North Korea’s latest round of sanctions showed that the international community was united in its responseto Pyongyang’s long-range ballistic missile tests on July 4 and July 28.
Weapons experts say both of the missiles might have been able to reach the mainland United States if they were fired properly rather than at a higher angle.
“We hope again that this ultimately will result in North Korea coming to a conclusion to choose a different pathway, and when the conditions are right that we can sit and have a dialogue around the future of North Korea so that they feel secure and prosper economically,” Tillerson said at the news conference.
The US has long said it would agree to talk only if North Korea agrees to denuclearization — something many analysts believe is unlikely.
China, North Korea’s main ally and economic benefactor, said Sunday that the situation on the Korean Peninsula situation had reached a “critical point of crisis,” but added that it was “turning point for negotiations.”
“Sanctions are necessary but in no way the ultimate purpose. Imposing fresh sanctions is aimed at bringing the conundrum back to the negotiation table,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
South Korean presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun said that Moon told Trump it’s important to show North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that doors for dialogue are open if it takes the right path of giving up its nuclear programs.”
“The two leaders affirmed that North Korea poses a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, South Korea, and Japan, as well as to most countries around the world,” the White House said in a statement Sunday.
Trump tweeted that he was very happy with the sanctions, which were unanimously approved by the United Nations Security Council two days ago.
‘We’ll know it when we see it’
North Korea sees its weapons program as the key to preventing US-led attempts at regime change, and the July missile tests showed Pyongyang may have passed an important threshold in its quest to obtain the ability hit the US with a nuclear warhead.
North Korea has long maintained it wants nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in order to deter the United States from attempting to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong Un.
Pyongyang looks at states like Iraq — where former dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the United States, and Libya — the country’s late leader, Moammar Gaddafi, gave up his nuclear ambitions for sanctions relief and aid, only to be toppled and killed after the US intervened in the country’s civil unrest — and believes that only being able to threaten the US homeland with a retaliatory nuclear strike can stop American military intervention.
The UN measures were implemented in order to make it harder for North Korea to make money across the globe. They target North Korea’s primary exports — including coal, iron and seafood — and attempt to cut off its additional revenue streams by targeting some of its banks and joint ventures with foreign companies.
Trump’s team has made it clear it wants the international community to put pressure on North Korea, by isolating the country and depriving it of cash in the hopes that Kim Jong Un will put his nuclear weapons program on the negotiating table.
“The best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches. We’ve not had an extended period of time where they have not taken some type of provocative action by launching ballistic missiles,” Tillerson said at a news conference.
When asked how long Pyongyang would need to stop launching missiles for — or if they would need to start dismantling their nuclear weapons program before talks — Tillerson said “we’ll know it when we see it.”
“This isn’t about a specific number of days or weeks. This is really about the spirit of these talks and when they can demonstrate they’re ready to sit with the spirit of finding a way forward in these talks by no longer conducting these missile tests,” Tillerson said. “It is all about how we see their attitude toward approaching a dialogue with us.”
Some analysts have expressed doubt, however, that the sanctions can stop the North Koreans, due to the regime’s ongoing commitment to its nuclear program — which they believe would be the last thing that would see spending cuts. North Korea is governed by a military-first policy enshrined in its constitution.