This is the bloc’s chance to act as peacemaker, but Pyongyang will not take kindly to pressure
Calls from the international community for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to play a role in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula could reinvigorate the bloc’s ambitions to steer regional security. But Asean needs to proceed carefully – the stakes are high and it has little to gain and much to lose.
The installation of the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile-defence system in South Korea has further complicated an already dire situation, infuriating the North and annoying China.
Lately US President Donald Trump has been seeking the cooperation of not just Beijing but also Southeast Asian allies in standing up to North Korean belligerence in building a nuclear arsenal. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Asean foreign ministers earlier this month to implement United Nations resolutions aimed at forcing the North to abandon its nuclear goals. Meanwhile Pyongyang has appealed to Asean in writing, asking for support against US attempts to “encircle” and confine it.
The diplomatic overtures signal that Asean is indeed considered important and perhaps could play a key role in resolving the row. It was Asean, after all, that coaxed North Korea out of its shell in 2000 for consultation over tensions then gripping the peninsula. Thailand chaired the group that invited Pyongyang to join the US, China, Japan and Russia at the Asean Regional Forum that year. It offered North Korea the only chance outside the UN to address its antagonists directly. There is now a push for Asean to again utilise the ARF to calm the current conflict.
While Asean has comparatively scant interest in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, several of its members enjoy warm relations with North Korea. Laos and Vietnam have a strong historical link based on their shared political ideology and Cambodia too, to a lesser degree. Myanmar has been on both good and bad terms with Pyongyang in recent decades, shifting from a diplomatic chill to a close military alliance.
Thailand and Malaysia trade with North Korea, but neither views Pyongyang cordially. Malaysia now regards it icily in the wake of the assassination there in February of Kim Jong-nam, estranged half-brother of supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Thailand has concerns about North Korean asylum-seekers regularly landing here before being resettled elsewhere.
The resulting wariness of Pyongyang among some Asean members tempers any optimism that the bloc’s success in 2000 might be repeated. It should also be kept in mind that Asean leaders consistently go out of their way to collectively save face, a weakness that North Korea could exploit as a way of shielding it from international criticism. Pyongyang is at any rate unlikely to send delegates to an ARF meeting if a US or South Korea presence was apt to cause discomfort.
As well, Asean faces a genuine dilemma in assuming a prominent role in this affair. If it pressed too hard – by, say, proposing or endorsing sanctions – most of its members could suffer economically. If it fails to act decisively, though, it risks seeming irrelevant. It must collectively choose between financial security and political security.