Asean can play larger role in Korean crisis

In recent months, Asean has unequivocally expressed its dismay by stating its "grave concern" over North Korea's ballistic missile tests.
In recent months, Asean has unequivocally expressed its dismay by stating its "grave concern" over North Korea's ballistic missile tests.REUTERS

Asean has often come under heavy criticism for its supposed muted response to major crises in its own backyard. From the Rohingya humanitarian tragedy in Myanmar to the brewing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the regional body has struggled to muster a robust response.

Yet, the Korean peninsula presents Asean with a unique opportunity for redemption. As the purported engine of pan-regional integration in East Asia, the regional organisation provides a unique platform for reviving dialogue and peaceful negotiations among disputing parties.

Crucially, the collapse of the Six Party Talks in 2009 has left the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) as the sole mechanism for institutionalised diplomatic interaction among all concerned parties, ranging from Seoul and Beijing to Washington, Tokyo and Pyongyang.

By and large, North Korea has displayed an unusual commitment to engaging the world through the regional body by sending high-level delegations to Asean meetings.

Last month, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited the ARF in Manila, where he held broadly constructive exchanges with Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, who oversaw the drafting of Asean statements on key regional security concerns.

The North Korean diplomatic chief's meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, who is the current rotational chairman of Asean, was even warmer. After a long and friendly conversation, the Filipino President went so far as describing North Korea as "a good dialogue partner", encouraging sustained engagement between Asean and Pyongyang.

North Korea seems to appreciate Asean as a largely neutral and sufficiently consequential regional actor. During the Asean summit in April, Pyongyang sent an unusually heartfelt letter to the Asean chairman (Mr Duterte), asking him to dissuade world powers, particularly the United States, from threatening North Korea lest the world suffer a "nuclear holocaust".

In recent months, Asean has unequivocally expressed its dismay by stating its "grave concern" over North Korea's ballistic missile tests. REUTERS

Pyongyang also asked Asean to forward "a proper proposal" to prevent the crisis from further escalation. Shortly after, Mr Duterte held extensive phone conversations with both his American (Mr Donald Trump) and Chinese (Mr Xi Jinping) counterparts, discussing prospects of diplomatic resolution to the crisis with the leaders of the two superpowers.

The Moon Jae In administration in South Korea has also recognised Asean's value as a potential partner for peace. In fact, Seoul has encouraged the regional body to play a more pro-active role in the Korean peninsula crisis.

Late last month, South Korea hosted the first-ever International Conference on Asean-Korea partnership. No less than Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh, as well as the Philippines' (nation with the rotational chairmanship) and South Korea's foreign ministers were in attendance.

During the event, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha openly welcomed a more pro-active Asean role in the inter-Korean crisis. To underline its commitment to stronger ties with South-east Asia, which now represents South Korea's second-largest trade and investment destination, Seoul also inaugurated a state-of-the-art structure to celebrate the cultural heritage of South-east Asian nations. The Asean Culture House's inauguration on Sept 1 saw the participation of senior officials from Seoul and all key Asean members.

As an influential adviser of President Moon told me during a recent trip to Seoul, the South Korean government is eager to dampen Sino-American tensions over the issue, which may once again engulf the Korean peninsula in total war.

Middle powers, such as Asean, are seen as indispensable to reviving a diplomatic road map for peace, which is consistent with Mr Moon's vision of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Korean peninsula by 2020.

To be fair, South-east Asian countries have also displayed commendable unity and coherence vis-a-vis Pyongyang's destabilising behaviour. In recent months, the regional body has unequivocally expressed its dismay by stating its "grave concern" over the reclusive regime's ballistic missile tests.

Pyonyang's subsequent nuclear test further strengthened South-east Asian countries' resolve to rein in North Korea's provocative behaviour. Given their geographic and historical proximity to North Korea, South-east Asian countries' buy-in is crucial to the effective implementation of international sanctions against Pyongyang.

The Philippines, for instance, has entirely suspended its bilateral trade with North Korea.

Other key regional players, such as Malaysia, have dramatically scaled back their strategic and economic ties with Pyongyang, especially since the assassination of Mr Kim Jong Nam (half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) by suspected North Korean agents in Malaysia.

Vietnam and Myanmar, considered as North Korea's longstanding strategic partners in South-east Asia, have also taken a tougher line and dramatically downgraded their defence ties with Pyongyang in recent years.

Nonetheless, Asean has deftly maintained robust communication channels with North Korea, while deepening its strategic ties with South Korea, China and Japan.

This puts the regional body in an auspiciously unique position to play a constructive and consequential role in the brewing conflict in North-east Asia.

Notwithstanding the inherent institutional weaknesses of Asean, including its notoriously inefficient consensus-based decision-making principle, South-east Asian countries can and should step up to the challenge.

There is no room for strategic complacency. A full-scale conflict in the Korean peninsula would have an unimaginably adverse impact on all regional states, including in South-east Asia.

Thus, it is high time for Asean to multilaterally (through the ARF), as well as bilaterally (through its members), facilitate North Korea's return to the negotiating table along with other major players.

  • The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, And The Struggle For The Western Pacific.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Asean can play larger role in Korean crisis'. Subscribe