Singapore suspends trade relations with North Korea

Photographers stake their positions on a hill to get the best shots of the North Korean flag being raised during the team welcome ceremony for the 17th Asian Games Incheon 2014.
Photographers stake their positions on a hill to get the best shots of the North Korean flag being raised during the team welcome ceremony for the 17th Asian Games Incheon 2014.PHOTO: ST FILE

SEOUL -  Singapore has suspended all trade with North Korea, becoming the latest South-east Asian nation to cut economic ties with the nuclear-armed state in line with toughened sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The Singapore Customs posted a circular on its website last week informing traders that “all commercially traded goods that are imported, exported, transhipped or brought in transit” through Singapore to and from North Korea will be prohibited from Nov 8. 

It warned that first-time offenders can be fined up to S$100,000 or three times the value of the goods traded, jailed for up to two years, or both. 

Analysts said Singapore’s move was timely and in line with international consensus to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue with economic sanctions. The United States meanwhile is rallying global support to put pressure on the Kim Jong Un regime to end provocations and abandon its nuclear weapons.

Dr Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Singapore has been gradually registering its disapproval and tightening sanctions while leaving “room for dialogue and a face-saving way out”.

“In light of (North Korea’s) continuance of its illicit nuclear ambitions, our decision to completely suspend commercial trade with North Korea communicates that the stakes on the issue are becoming even higher, and that we cannot make our disapproval clearer than this,” he said. 

Singapore, like most Asean countries, has diplomatic ties with both Koreas.

The 10-member bloc ranks among North Korea’s major trading partners. Singapore was North Korea’s sixth largest trading partner in 2015, with bilateral trade reaching US$29 million. Thailand was the fourth largest trade partner, after China, Russia and India. 

Sentiments began to turn against North Korea after the North Korean leader’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam was murdered in Malaysia in February. It is widely believed that Pyongyang orchestrated the assassination.

Malaysia, which bought 20.6 million ringgit (S$6.7 million) worth of goods from North Korea in the first five months of the year, has since halted all imports from the regime. The Philippines has also suspended trade links.

Thailand’s bilateral trade with the North in the first six months of this year has plunged 94 per cent from last year's US$16.4 million to just  US$900,000. In 2015, their bilateral trade reached US$50 million. 

Singapore’s decision to cut economic ties with Pyongyang was welcomed by South Korean analysts. 

“This is quite a significant withdrawal of support by Singapore as part of Asean,” said Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.

He said the decision also showed that the world’s “preferred ultimate solution” to the North Korea’s nuclear crisis is a diplomatic one via sanctions, and not military action. 

Some observers see the move as a fitting one as Singapore prepares to assume the Asean chairmanship next year.

“We cannot take a firmer stance on (North Korea) and rally other Asean countries to do so if we ourselves do not take on measures such as economic sanctions,” said Dr Ong-Webb. “So our latest move is symbolically very clear... We have had to exercise leadership right from the get-go and set the regional tone on the North Korean issue.”

Referring to observers who expressed surprise at Singapore’s low-key move, Dr Ong-Webb said there was no need to trumpet the decision, but rather, let it “take root and speak for itself”. 

The trade suspension came more than two months after the MFA advised Singaporeans to avoid non-essential travel to North Korea after Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept 3. 

Singapore has no mission in Pyongyang though North Korea maintains an embassy in the city state. North Koreans have been required to get a visa to enter Singapore since October last year. 

Additional reporting by Jose Hong in Singapore