The upcoming meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to provide a crucial platform for South Korea to rally support for efforts to denuclearize North Korea amid deepening worries over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, experts and officials said Friday.
Foreign ministers of 10-member states of the ASEAN and 17 other countries including South Korea, the United States and China, along with the European Union, will gather early next week in Manila, the Philippines, to attend multiple ASEAN meetings.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha will also hold bilateral talks with her counterparts from some 15 countries on the sidelines. She will leave for Manila on Saturday for her debut at the multilateral diplomatic event since taking office in June.
On Sunday, Kang will attend the South Korea-ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting to discuss their relations, the North's evolving threats and other global and regional issues.
It will be followed by other gatherings on Monday such as the ASEAN plus three meeting including South Korea, China and Japan and the East Asia Summit to be attended by a total of 18 countries.
Keen attention will be placed, in particular, on Monday's ASEAN Regional Forum, a rare multilateral diplomatic platform to which all the members of the now-suspended six-party denuclearization talks send their top diplomats. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho is expected to participate.
South Korea will likely focus on making its stance on the North Korea issue reflected in a chairman's statement to be issued following the ARF.
"We will make efforts to reflect what was announced in Berlin with regard to the North, while also sending a resolute message against its missile provocations," a foreign ministry official said. "Among other things, we will push to make what the president said in Berlin on how to deal with the North well reflected in the statement."
In his speech in Germany early last month, President Moon Jae-in emphasized the need for talks along with pressure to ease tensions and ultimately deal with the North's nuclear and missile threats.
This year's ARF comes amid heightened concerns and uncertainty over the North's nuclear and missile programs. In particular, the jitters have intensified since the North test-fired what it claimed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile twice on July 4 and July 28.
The consecutive missile provocations drew strong condemnation from the international community, raising the need for more strengthened coordination and policy consultation in the international community against the recalcitrant North.
It feeds into the fear especially in the US that the North is one step closer to mastering missiles capable of hitting its mainland with a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on them.
However, global efforts appear to be in limbo on how to respond with relevant discussion at the U.N. Security Council seemingly making little progress.
An emergency UNSC meeting has not been held to discuss countermeasures against the North's July 28 missile launch, as Nikki Haley, US ambassador said that the "time for talk is over," apparently ramping up pressure on China, the North's biggest ally, to act.
Against this backdrop, concerns have been growing in South Korea that it could be bypassed in global efforts to denuclearize the North amid speculations that the US and China might be considering a regime change in the reclusive country and that there could be a "big deal" between the two powers on the issue with the Seoul government possibly sidelined in the process.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently expressed hope for talks with the North, raising expectations that he could meet with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri in the Philippines. But the State Department later said that there will be no such event.
US President Donald Trump reportedly mentioned a possible war against the North. And he also signed into law sanctions on North Korea, along with Russia and Iran.
Intended or not, such mixed signals from the US could be yet another concern for the liberal Moon Jae-in government.
South Korea faces a tough balancing act as it should be careful in pushing to pressure the North over its defiant pursuit of nuclear and missile programs while at the same time seeking support for its peaceful solution to the nuclear stalemate.
"For our foreign minister, it will be the effectively first test of her diplomatic capacity on the international stage," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.
"It will be important to reaffirm alliance and strong coordination underway with the US and other countries while at the same time making efforts on some type of contact with the North. Kang should be careful and also flexible," he said. "It would be walking a thin line."
No less serious challenge for Kang is China's repeated bashing of South Korea for the ongoing deployment of a US missile defense system called THAAD on the Korean Peninsula. The issue will likely emerge as a major topic during a bilateral meeting between Kang and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
South Korea and the US argue that the THAAD system is necessary to better defend against incoming missiles from the North. But China says that it is part of the US national missile defense system that will undermine its strategic security interests.
Currently two launchers of the six needed for operation of a THAAD battery have been installed, with the remaining four not yet deployed.
As President Moon recently ordered the deployment of the remaining THAAD launchers in response to the North's latest missile provocation, China has renewed its opposition.
A foreign ministry official said that bilateral talks to be held between South Korea and China on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings will be yet another "focal point" as China will likely step up its demand for the withdrawal of the THAAD system from the Korean Peninsula.
"We will strongly drive home our arguments for the need of the THAAD system in talks with China next week," he said on condition of anonymity. (Yonhap)