Within the space of a month, two separate actions perpetrated by North Korea have sent ripples of alarm through Asia-Pacific.
The February 13 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, by two women at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, caused confusion and disbelief.
Through February, Indonesian media were filled with the news of how Siti Aisyah, the alleged Indonesian poisoner, was duped into assassinating Kim.
Added to that were the two missile launches conducted by North Korea in February and March, the latter seeing four ballistic missiles tested.
This escalation of aggression prompts an urgent question for our region: Does North Korea now pose a grave threat to Southeast Asia?
So far the killing of Kim has raised tensions and caused a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea. Pyongyang has responded in kind to Kuala Lumpur expelling its ambassador and gone further by banning all Malaysian citizens from leaving North Korea.
The biggest security concern emerging from the assassination is the evidence that Kim was killed with lethal VX nerve agent, a substance banned by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
This has triggered fears of a possible proliferation of chemical weapons and their falling into the hands of non-state actors.
North Korea denies involvement in Kim’s assassination but is known to stockpile as much as 5,000 tonnes of lethal agents including VX, sarin, mustard gas, tabun and hydrogen cyanide.
Furthermore, the North’s chemical programme – part of an attempt to create an indigenous weapon of mass destruction – has seen an upsurge in its weapons testing programme.
Last year Pyongyang’s underground hydrogen bomb test and subsequent submarine missile launch led one United States official to observe that “North Korea’s sub launch capability has gone from a joke to something very serious”.
That “something very serious” should be cause for especial alarm in Southeast Asia. If North Korea has acquired the means to launch ballistic missiles from the sea as well as land, Asean states must urgently reassess the threat from Pyongyang.
The recent provocative simultaneous launch of four ballistic missiles toward Japan signals the increasing pace of the North’s weapons development. The missiles being tested may only have short-range capabilities.
But imagine those missiles loaded aboard one of North Korea’s newly manufactured submarines, where they could easily be brought within range of any Asean member-state
The countries of Southeast Asia have so far paid little attention to North Korea’s missile capability, believing the threat is confined to South Korea, Japan and US interests in Asia-Pacific. Asean members must now reassess the lengths that North Korea will go to solidify its rule.
If the assassination last month teaches us anything it is that North Korea under Kim Jong-un is now reaching beyond its borders to impose its iron fist upon dissidents, critics and others who stand in its way. The Supreme Leader is willing to trespass upon the sovereignty of other nations and even utilise a weapon of mass destruction.
The cold war might be long gone, but the threat from North Korea still exists. This is the right moment for further cooperation in the field of Asean defence and diplomacy to de-escalate the threat from North Korea. Meanwhile the region’s defences – submarine-detecting tech, missile defences and radar systems – should be tuned the growing threat from the northeast. Regional cooperation is also needed in efforts towards chemical weapons counter-proliferation.
Asean needs to wake up and realise that the threat from North Korea is nothing short of a regional security issue. – Special to the Jakarta Post/ANN
Gilang Kembara is a researcher at Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.