North Korea has officially asked for Asean’s support in its row with the US over the current stand-off. Frankly speaking, it was a bit too late and also unwarranted.
For nearly two decades, North Korea has had ample opportunities to use Asean goodwill and friendship and its numerous mechanisms to build up confidence and further reduce tensions in the Korean Peninsula. But Pyongyang chose to completely ignore Asean. Even worse, it has taken the grouping for granted and in the process greatly undermined its potential power to shape issues impacting peace and security in earlier days.
Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s letter to Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh warned that the situation in the Korean Peninsula was “reaching the brink of war” because of the US action. He urged the Asean chief to inform member countries about the grave situation on the ground. Truth be told, Asean leaders have been well informed as they have issued numerous statements expressing concerns over Pyongyang’s intransigence in the past years. The Korean Peninsula crisis has been greatly escalated by the frequent testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear-related weapons since Kim Jong-un came to power at the end of 2011. Minh would probably not respond to Ho’s letter because Asean does not trust North Korea any more. Furthermore, the grouping’s position has also been consistent: de-escalation of the crisis, denuclearisation of North Korea and the resumption of Six Party Talks (SPT).
If Pyongyang is really serious about the prospective role of Asean, it should have approached the grouping long before the current crisis reached a potentially explosive condition. After the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) was established in 1995, the Korean Peninsula has been dominating the region-wide security platform. Sad but true, after joining the ARF in 2000, North Korea has not been a good ARF member due to the lack of a foreign ministerial attendance. Furthermore, since 2003 the SPT has been dragging on without any substantive progress. All SPT members belong to the ARF, which Asean had hoped could be used as a platform to build up confidence and reduce tensions.
In addition, Pyongyang also acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008, accepting the 1976 regional code of conduct that advocates pacifist means of resolving conflicts and denounces the use of force. Back then, Asean sincerely hoped it could persuade Pyongyang to be part of the new make-up of regional architecture as Asean was expanding its role and region-wide security forum. But the expectation was a bit premature, as North Korea has continued to pursue its nuclear ambition without addressing Asean concerns and issues related to peace and security in the region.
Just this month alone, Pyongyang conducted three ballistic missile test, aiming at provoking the US to coincide with President Donald Trump’s hundred days in office as well as challenging the UN Security Council meeting on North Korea chaired by State Secretary Rex Tillerson in New York. What was intriguing about Pyongyang’s strategy was that while it was asking Asean for support, it was threatening Asean, as the latest tests were timed to coincide with the Asean Summit over the weekend. These ballistic missiles can reach all Asean capitals.
The Asean chairman’s statement, which was released yesterday after the end of 30th summit on Saturday, again expressed “grave concern” over the latest test. The Asean leaders also called for self-restraint not to exacerbate the current tension and explore awareness of immediate dialogue.
In the context of Asian diplomacy, however, it is better late and never. There are few tangible steps that Pyongyang needs to take to bring back longstanding Asean goodwill and confidence before any decision to do North Korea’s bidding. At this juncture, Pyongyang’s important gesture must be to communicate frankly with Malaysia about the incident at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February. The murder of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half brother, remains a mystery and cannot be condoned without proper investigation and explanation. Obviously, without Malaysia’s full acquiescence, Asean would not be able to mobilise its diplomatic efforts in whatever capacities.
Second, North Korea must give an assurance to Asean that it would give up its nuclear ambition and join community-building efforts in East Asia. The future of this hermit kingdom lies within this region and its cooperative spirit. Asean can help ease the pains of economic integration of centralised economies. Just look at the progress of the Asean Community, which now incorporate all countries in Southeast Asia. Without this prerequisite, North Korea will remain a belligerent nation as always. Asean has been consistent in expressing concerns over Pyongyang’s repeated tests of mass weapons of destruction. At this juncture, Asean has also taken up a common position to push for a global ban treaty for nuclear weapons, which is currently under negotiation at the UN.
All in all, North Korea does not have to be aggressive with Asean as it is not threatening anyone. There is no loss of face involved in dealing with Asean. The country has a clear choice to make – the path of more isolation or integration. As its 50-year history has manifested, Asean is very good at the second choice.