The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is reaching its peak. North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has threatened to wage an attack on the United States and South Korea using “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear weapons”. Shuttle diplomacy is now being conducted between key players in an attempt to alleviate the tense situation.
Indeed, all the key players, including North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China and Japan, are members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a platform for security discussion first established in 1994. While ASEAN has been in recent years enthusiastic to play a leading role in regional politics, particularly as the plan to build its own community will be realized at the end of 2015, it has remained silent regarding the escalating situation on the Korean Peninsula.
There has been no statement from ASEAN’s Chair this year, Brunei, concerning how to convince North Korea to discard its aggressive policy that has destabilised regional peace. Instead, Byung Koo Choi, the Korean Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam, had to raise this issue to the ASEAN’s Chair, calling for its intervention since the grouping has been a friend to all countries in the crisis.
Moreover, ASEAN has its own dispute settlement mechanisms which could be employed as part of preventive diplomacy. It is true that these mechanisms may not always work, as seen in the case of the Thai-Cambodian conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple. But at least, they can provide North Korea and South Korea a platform through which they can communicate in order to avoid a catastrophic war. ASEAN can sincerely offer a channel for negotiation, something that the six-party talk framework has been unable to do so.
Brunei Darussalam, Koo Choi said, “can play a crucial role, as the chair country of ASEAN this year. ASEAN, as a regional association, can take the opportunity and play a constructive role and this will increase its prestige, especially under the chairmanship of Brunei". “We look forward to the Brunei Government’s contribution. We believe in peace and stability, which benefits the ASEAS region. If there are any problems, other countries will also be affected,” he said.
If ASEAN is serious about playing a significant role in regional conflict, it will have to adopt serious measures in dealing with North Korea. And ASEAN can achieve this by tightening up its engagement with Pyongyang.
In recent years, North Korea has strengthened its ties with a number of Southeast Asian states as part of its strategy to recruit allies to reduce its isolation and to alleviate the impact of international sanctions. Realising this, North Korea has begun to reach out to countries in Southeast Asia to break free from its strategic confinement. Pyongyang renewed its relationship with Naypyidaw from April 2007. Bilateral relations were frozen in 1983 following a failed assassination attempt of the then South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan during his official visit to Myanmar. The bombing killed 21 of the President’s entourage, including four cabinet ministers. Myanmar quickly arrested the North Korean assassins, but it was too late to repair the damaged relationship.
Isolated from the global community, North Korea and Myanmar have now found security in their comradeship. They recognise the benefits of mutual support and are happy to carpet over old tensions. Lately, rumours have grown louder over the possible transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea to Myanmar. But so far, there has been no evidence that confirms North Korea’s assistance in the building of a Burmese nuclear reactor.
Meanwhile, North Korea has also forged a cosy relationship with Laos. In 2009, Kim Thae Jong, Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of North Korea, paid an official visit to Vientiane and exchanged discussions with Lao Vice-President Bounnhang Vorachit. This was not the first time leaders of the two countries met. Members of the Lao Communist Party, Foreign Ministry officials, and Lao People’s Army (LPA) military officers have repeatedly visited Pyongyang allegedly in support of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development programme.
The Washington-based Centre for Public Policy Analysis revealed that Laos has become a staunch supporter of North Korea. The North Korean Embassy in Laos is one of the largest in Southeast Asia, second only to Myanmar. Laos’ Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the US Hiem Phommachanh recently declared, “We honour and are grateful for....the long history of the friendly relationship and cooperation between Laos and North Korea, especially the assistance and support from North Korea during the Lao Marxist-Leninist revolutionary period. Since Laos’ liberation in 1975, our relations and cooperation with North Korea have been constantly developing. Laos expresses hope that under leadership of the North Korean Communist Workers Party, the people of North Korea would be successful in their task of national defence."
Laos’ alleged support for North Korea’s nuclear programme emerged as one of the most controversial issues during the ARF meeting in Phuket in July 2009. While deepening its political ties with countries in this region, the North Korean government has also extended its economic networks with some of them. Its business presence can be felt in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
In 2007, North Korea sent its Prime Minister Kim Yong-il to Hanoi to gain some valuable lessons in market economics. North Korea has expressed its interest in Vietnam’s way of economic reform. North Korean leaders perceive that Hanoi could provide a very suitable model of development. Some analysts believe that the most appealing aspect of Vietnam's development to North Korea is the way it has maintained political stability and economic growth within the context of a one-party regime.
On the day-to-day end of things, North Korean businesses have increasingly made inroads into the heart of Southeast Asia. The Pyongyang Restaurant in Cambodia’s Siem Reap, established in 2003, was so successful that the latest branch was launched in the capital Phnom Penh a year later. Owned and run by the North Korean government, Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist based in Thailand noted, the restaurant is famous not only for its cold noodles and barbecue served with kim chi, but also for its talented staff, which when not serving are dancing to traditional Korean tunes played on violins and an electric piano.
In 2006, the owner opened an even bigger restaurant in Bangkok, with all the waitresses dressed in traditional costumes known as chima jogoiri, and with little Kim Il-sung badges on their blouses. Lintner mentioned that the choice of Thailand was significant as the kingdom is currently North Korea’s third largest trading partner, after China and South Korea, and of course a favourite destination for North Korean refugees. Lintner also reported that the Pyongyang authorities, threatened with sanctions, were able to continue to run a string of small-scale companies and business across the region that kept foreign-currency earnings flowing back home.
The Southeast Asian region provides North Korea with much-needed breathing space, at a time when the regime has found itself battling alone with enemies in its own backyard, and now even threatens regional peace. ASEAN could limit its ties with North Korea should it decide not to enter in a dialogue with the region and South Korea in the current standoff. Pyongyang needs a tough response from ASEAN.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.