North Korea's foreign minister Ri Yong Ho leaves Pyongyang for an ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila. PHOTO: AFP/KIM Won-Jin
North Korea's foreign minister Ri Yong Ho leaves Pyongyang for an ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila. PHOTO: AFP/KIM Won-Jin

Weeks ahead of the much-anticipated summit between North Korean leader Kim Jung-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, there are growing hopes for permanent peace on the long-troubled Peninsula.

The two Korean leaders are not only expected to discuss the de-escalation of tensions, but also the prospect of denuclearization and eventual reunification between the two separated nations.

This is a dramatic turnabout in the geopolitical momentum in the region.

And all major players, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a critical role in facilitating this highly encouraging development.

As part of a Southeast Asian delegation, led by veteran Indonesian diplomat Dino Patti Djalal, the author had the opportunity to visit the Hermit Kingdom, where he exchanged views with senior North Korean officials.

What was clear in the discussions was the centrality Pyongyang attaches to its relations with ASEAN. This is partly for historical reasons, given the warm and longstanding ties between North Korea and fellow socialist-communist nations in the region, particularly Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Regional diplomatic relations

During the time of Sukarno, a socialist-leaning Indonesia also cultivated robust ties with North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. Up until today, Jakarta is one of the few places in the region where North Korea maintains a full-fledged embassy.

Over the decades, even at the height of Cold War, Pyongyang managed to expand its diplomatic relations across the region, establishing formal ties with American treaty allies such as the Philippines as well as former British colonies such as Malaysia.

In more recent years, as North Korea confronted ever-stronger Western sanctions over its nuclear program, ASEAN, along with China and Russia, emerged as key interlocutors and economic partners. For long, Southeast Asia also served as an opportunity for Pyongyang to circumvent international sanctions, thanks to its robust and wide network of connections to both formal and informal economic sectors in the region.

No wonder then, during our meetings with senior North Korean officials, they repeatedly emphasized their “traditional friendship” with ASEAN countries. There was also a perceptible frustration over the decision of many Southeast Asian countries to scale back or entirely eliminate financial and diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, North Korean officials made clear that they “understand” the circumstances under which almost all Southeast Asian countries decided to downgrade ties with Pyongyang.

From their point of view, this is due to pressure by hostile forces, namely the United States. In fact, the Trump administration focused much of its diplomatic attention on gaining the buy-in of Southeast Asian states to ensure the efficacy of sanctions.

Major players in the region

Yet there seems to be an appreciation of the fact that ASEAN, under the chairmanship of the Philippines last year, sought to de-escalate tensions on the Peninsula. In fact, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte personally encouraged, in conversations on the phone and in person, world powers, particularly the United States, to pursue a path of dialogue and cooperation rather than military intervention.

Since the abrupt collapse of Six-Party Talks in 2009, the ASEAN Regional Forum is among few multilateral avenues through which Pyongyang engages major players in the region. It’s precisely ASEAN’s convening power that makes it crucial to sustaining diplomatic momentum at the expense of the risk of direct military conflict.

Only months earlier, the world inched closer to all-out conflict, as the main protagonists incessantly engaged in a dangerous cycle of trading verbal barbs, with every provocative maneuver by Pyongyang immediately triggering a new set of punitive sanctions.

Many are hoping this was just a storm before the lull. In fact, an unprecedented meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump seems to be on the horizon.

The North Korean regime maintains, however, that the positive diplomatic shift is solely the result of the “courageous and bold” decision of Kim Jung-un to roll the dice of direct engagement with other major players, including Washington.

But nothing can be taken for granted. Trump has repeatedly sought to manage expectations by raising the possibility of failure lest he risks major disappointment for those who expect a rapid breakthrough.

At this point, Pyongyang is exploring the possibility of a permanent peace agreement to supplant the fragile armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953; reverse or forestall sanctions that have hurt its economic modernization and get security guarantees from Washington.

A ‘full-fledged strategic state’

North Korean officials, however, have made it clear they are negotiating from a position of strength as a “full-fledged strategic state.” The cordial meeting between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping has further strengthened Pyongyang’s confidence in engaging America and its key regional allies, South Korea and Japan.

Sanctions are neither strong enough to threaten the survival of the regime or alter its national security doctrine. But it seems sanctions have been hurtful enough to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. The newfound appetite for diplomacy, however, remains tenuous.

The North Korean regime has raised the prospect of denuclearization, but it’s not clear what this exactly entails. There are also concerns over whether the Trump administration has the right team of experienced diplomats and conscientious experts capable of navigating the complexity of multilayered negotiations, which are indispensable to solving any major conflict.

By all indications, it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will give up its main trump card, its nuclear weapons, any time soon. Regime survival remains a top priority.

Therefore, it is important for other key players to continue supporting ongoing efforts at establishing a durable framework for peace and denuclearization on the Peninsula, especially if bilateral talks between the main protagonists fail to produce a breakthrough.

This is where ASEAN has a crucial role to play as an engine of regional integration and dialogue-based resolution of disputes.

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