North Korea reaches out to Asean with proposal for dialogue

The National University of Malaysia's Dr Hoo Chiew-Ping sees Pyongyang's outreach as a welcome sign.
The National University of Malaysia's Dr Hoo Chiew-Ping sees Pyongyang's outreach as a welcome sign.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

North Korea has taken the initiative to kick-start Track II - or non-governmental - diplomacy with Asean, a Korea watcher has said.

Dr Hoo Chiew-Ping of the National University of Malaysia told a panel at The Straits Times Global Outlook forum on Wednesday (Nov 28) that the North Koreans have reached out to a Myanmar think-tank asking it to host a dialogue on the Korean peninsula.

While details of the roundtable have not been finalised, the outreach is seen as a welcome step, as Pyongyang has reduced its engagement with a regional network of think-tanks that looks at se-curity issues in the past decade.

Dr Hoo later told The Straits Times that the roundtable was proposed for the middle of next month.

She was quite surprised by the North Korean move, but added that she sees it as a welcome sign.

Pyongyang's attendance at some Track II meetings, such as the annual Asia-Pacific Roundtable convened in Kuala Lumpur by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, has dipped in recent years as the country steps up the development of its nuclear and missile programmes.

The Malaysian institute is a member of the Asean-Institutes of Strategic and International Studies think-tank network that is involved in Track II diplomacy in the region.

The upcoming roundtable to be held in Myanmar is one way to maintain what Dr Hoo describes as "a thin line of connection" between North Korea and Asean.

"Maybe they are responding to (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in's new Southern Policy, that Asean is one of the best platforms that they can utilise to promote their peace agenda," she said.

Mr Moon had said during a state visit to Singapore in July that he hoped cooperation between Asean and the North will be strengthened.


North Korea is a member of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, whose members include Asean Regional Forum (ARF) members. North Korea has been taking part in the ARF, the only multilateral forum to include the reclusive regime, since 2000.

Also on the panel, titled Peace on the Korean Peninsula?, were ST's US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh and South Korea correspondent Chang May Choon, who gave their views on the rapid rapprochement on the divided peninsula.

Although this past year saw inter-Korean summits and a landmark summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, peace remains fragile, and a tweet from Mr Trump is all it takes to change the equation, said Mr Ghosh, who spoke of the deep cynicism among policymakers, experts and the US media towards North Korea.

He added that while Mr Trump is keen to follow up on his first summit with Mr Kim, the US administration wants to see concrete deliverables offered at the second summit. "But Mr Trump is an impatient man," he said, to laughter from the audience.

Mr Moon, too, is in a hurry to fulfil his personal mission of achieving peace across the demilitarised zone, said Ms Chang.

He has three years left in his mandatory single five-year term.

Mr Moon has also faced mounting criticism in his own country for his pro-North policies, Ms Chang noted. Some South Koreans, especially the young, think he should be spending more effort on creating jobs amid global economic headwinds.

Optimism from this year's summits appears to have lost steam of late, amid a deadlock over differences on how to proceed with the denuclearisation process. This is why informal interactions are important to keep the lines of communication open, experts have said.

Asked about the likely participation of the US in the Myanmar roundtable, Dr Hoo is not hopeful.

But Track II meetings with the North are important, she said, adding: "It is important for us to speak face to face, to know what they really think. And whether something can be worked out together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2018, with the headline 'North Korea reaches out to Asean with proposal for dialogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe