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How Singapore Sees The Threat From North Korea


The threat from North Korea has the Trump administration trying to circle the wagons with its allies in Southeast Asia. The U.S. is asking those countries to strictly enforce economic sanctions against the North and to keep diplomatic relations with Pyongyang to a minimum. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised these issues in Washington yesterday during a meeting with foreign ministers representing the Association of South East Asian Nations. Vivian Balakrishnan is the foreign minister of Singapore. He was in that meeting, and he is here in our studios this morning.

Thank you so much for being here.


MARTIN: How does Singapore see the threat from North Korea?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, we had a very good meeting yesterday with Rex - short, direct, to the point. We're worried. We're deeply worried. North Korea is a clear and present danger. And the risk...

MARTIN: Moreso than it has been?

BALAKRISHNAN: Yes, moreso. I think the tensions have escalated. If there's any miscalculation on either side, we're looking at some pretty horrendous consequences. So we are worried.

MARTIN: Singapore has diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. What message is your government conveying to North Korea through that mechanism about its nuclear...

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, we've repeatedly urged North Korea to fully comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. On our part and on the part of all Southeast Asian nations, we intend to fully comply with all those resolutions. So there will be economic pressure, but it's really - I don't want to trivialize or make it seem simple. This is a very complex issue, and it will take time to resolve.

MARTIN: Are you prepared to downgrade relations with North Korea as Secretary Tillerson urged yesterday?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, we don't have a mission in Pyongyang. Well, there's a couple of North Korean diplomats in Singapore, so it's already a very minimal level. And so I don't see any further de-escalation of that. What we need is for good sense to prevail, for caution to be exercised on all sides. And really, the country with the most leverage on North Korea is China. So it all depends on how much China is willing to do.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask - you say that your presence in North Korea is minimal or non-existent.

BALAKRISHNAN: Non-existent.

MARTIN: But you do have, officially, a diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang. Would you consider cutting that off as a way to put pressure on them? Or do...

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, Rex hasn't asked for that. I mean, he's not asked for a break in diplomatic relations. But he is asking - and we agreed with him - that we will fully comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

MARTIN: The United Nations reported links between a Singapore company and a North Korean firm that was involved in the arms trade. How do you respond to allegations that North Korea may be using Singapore for illicit financial transactions?

BALAKRISHNAN: We will not tolerate that. We will investigate fully all such allegations, and we'll take the necessary actions.

MARTIN: Are you aware of those allegations? Is it something your government (unintelligible) concerned about?

BALAKRISHNAN: I'm not aware of the specific allegations. But we have always told the United Nations and all other regulators, let us know. We will investigate. We will take action.

MARTIN: Let me ask about another controversial topic in your region that Secretary Tillerson addressed yesterday, a Chinese construction of islands in the South China Sea. Just this past week, ASEAN held a meeting - no mention of the South China Sea dispute. Why is that? Has the region, the countries there collectively given up on this issue - ceded it to China?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, no. Let's take a step back. And first, why is the South China Sea important? It's important because $5 trillion worth of trade flows through these waterways. It connects all countries across the Pacific. So the United States of America, China and of course Southeast Asia. So it's absolutely crucial that it remains open, that we have peace and stability. So that's the first point. The second point is that what we want is a rules-based World order that complies with international law and has access to peaceful way of resolving differences.

The third point is that we must understand that territorial disputes, by definition, will always be difficult to resolve. In fact, it will take a very long time to resolve. What ASEAN is focused on right now is to settle the framework for our code of conduct. This is an agreement which will set rules of engagement. It's an important first step to building confidence, to building engagement so that we can keep the peace, keep trade routes open, keep diplomatic channels open. So it's more important to have light rather than to generate heat.

MARTIN: Just briefly on trade - Singapore agreed to join the Trans-Pacific trade agreement that President Obama negotiated. President Trump walked away from that deal. Do you think China will replace the United States as the fulcrum of that deal?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, let me begin by telling you why trade is so important. It supports half a million American jobs. America has more invested in Southeast Asia than it has in India, China and Japan combined. American prosperity is at stake. The other point is that Southeast Asia is a place that welcomes American companies and Americans as friends, as tourists, as students. This is an area that is ripe with - replete with opportunities too big to miss.

So it is in that context that we're disappointed. We're disappointed that America has backed away from the TPP. We saw this as an opportunity for integration - economic integration. We saw this as an expression of what America has stood for for the last 70 years - free markets, free trade, fair trade, elevating standards for intellectual property protection, elevating standards for labor laws, elevating standards for environment protection. It was a very high-quality agreement. Anyway, we believe the economic logic for relating with Southeast Asia is powerful, and we hope that in some fashion, America will continue this journey of building economic ties with us.

MARTIN: What happens if China fills the vacuum?

BALAKRISHNAN: It's not a question of China filling the vacuum. Southeast Asia - the 10 of us constitute 628 million people. We've got an economy which is growing. We've got a population which is young. We are building economic bridges across the globe. It includes China. It includes India, includes Australia and New Zealand. The point is not to look at this in a zero-sum exclusively. But we want a regional, all-encompassing, welcoming, architecture. And - I want to say - America is most welcome to participate in this. Thank you.

MARTIN: Vivian Balakrishnan is the foreign minister of Singapore. He was in our studios this morning here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for your time this morning.

BALAKRISHNAN: Thanks, Rachel. It was good fun.

(BADBADNOTGOOD'S "KALEIDOSCOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 4, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this conversation, Minister Balakrishnan said the U.S. exports $100 million worth of goods and services to Southeast Asia annually. Those exports actually exceed $100 billion.
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