Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability

June 13, 2017

Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability

by David Han@RSIS (Rajaratnam School–NTU)

In recent months, North Korea has raised tensions and aroused anxiety throughout the Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia. Although ASEAN should be concerned about this threat given the grave security implications for the wider Asia Pacific region, it needs to be mindful of why it exists in order to avoid distorting its credentials and relevance to the Korean Peninsula crisis.

Image result for ASEAN and North Korea

In a letter to the ASEAN Secretary General dated 23 March 2017, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho indicated his ‘expectations that ASEAN, which attaches great importance to the regional peace and stability, will make an issue of the US–South Korean joint military exercises at ASEAN conferences’. He added that ASEAN should take a ‘fair position and play an active role in safeguarding the peace and safety of Korean Peninsula’.

In April 2017, during the 30th ASEAN Summit in the Philippines, ASEAN instead expressed ‘grave concern’ and urged North Korea to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. ASEAN’s firm yet measured response to North Korea reflects the international consensus against North Korea’s actions. It is also a neutral posture that avoids siding with any party involved in the crisis, including China or the United States. ASEAN’s position neither overestimates the organisation’s ability to contribute to the resolution of the crisis nor misconstrues its existing purpose as a platform for shaping regional security.

RSIS researchers Shawn Ho and Sarah Teo wrote that ‘ASEAN could strengthen its regional security credentials by paying more attention to the challenge on the Korean Peninsula’. The rationale is that given the ‘current salience of the Korean Peninsula’s security to Beijing and Washington, if ASEAN is to do more to deal with the challenge on the Korean Peninsula, ASEAN’s relevance and importance to both major powers could be enhanced’.

This argument raises the importance for ASEAN to urge the United States to continue engaging with Southeast Asia. The United States could do this through existing regional arrangements that have been shaped by ASEAN multilateralism, rather than circumventing such established structures when dealing with security and geopolitical issues.

Yet the Korean Peninsula may not be the appropriate conduit for ASEAN–US ties so this argument could be problematic for two reasons.

First, it is unclear how ASEAN would demonstrate its relevance to the United States by dealing with the North Korean threat, when ASEAN is already challenged by existing geopolitical issues within the region. As ASEAN has been unable to reach consensus over major geopolitical contentions, such as the South China Sea dispute, it is not clear how ASEAN would be relevant to the United States tackling the Korean Peninsula crisis without first demonstrating its capacity to resolve Southeast Asia’s maritime spats.

Image result for ASEAN, China and US

The second problem is that it risks ASEAN becoming divided between China and the United States. During the recent meeting on 4 May 2017 in Washington DC, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed to ASEAN foreign ministers that Washington intends to stay engaged in Southeast Asia when he commended ASEAN as an ‘essential partner’ to the United States. Tillerson also urged ASEAN to pressure North Korea by reviewing Pyongyang’s relations with ASEAN and curbing the country’s revenue flows from Southeast Asia.

But were ASEAN to comply with the United States’ request to condemn North Korea’s actions, China could perceive this as an attempt by Washington to complicate the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula crisis in which ASEAN is not directly involved.

ASEAN’s internal unity could also be affected negatively if it were to get involved in the Peninsula crisis. There are already indications that some member states are more inclined towards China while others gravitate towards the United States. If ASEAN chooses sides regarding the North Korean threat, this could widen the intra-ASEAN divide.

So if ASEAN intends to show its relevance regarding the North Korean threat, it should be realistic about its own ability to offer viable solutions to the crisis and avoid pandering to either China or the United States.

During the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings, ASEAN could signal to North Korea that it should back down from its provocative behaviour, but beyond this there is not much that ASEAN can do to pressure North Korea to change its course. In the past, ASEAN has issued similar statements on North Korea’s brinksmanship and North Korea has disregarded them, continuing with its nuclearisation drive unabated.

This is not to downplay ASEAN’s importance as a regional organisation. Indeed, over the past few decades, ASEAN has played a key role in reducing the risk of conflict in the region through dialogue, consultation and consensus. It was even envisioned that ASEAN norms could have a wider influence on the security trajectory of the Asia Pacific. The ARF was formed in 1994 for ASEAN and external stakeholders to discuss security issues and promote cooperative measures to enhance peace and stability in the region.

But the ARF is not meant to provide and enforce solutions to conflicts, so ASEAN is limited in offering viable recommendations to both the United States and China on the Korean Peninsula crisis. In the long term, ASEAN should focus its efforts on developing the ASEAN community to advance norm formulation, measures to promote peaceful consultation on security issues and collective solutions for conflict prevention and resolution.

In the meantime, ASEAN should continue in its unequivocal insistence that North Korea step down from its aggressive actions and that all parties involved are to avoid any further provocation.

David Han is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published here on RSIS.

7 thoughts on “Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability

  1. This “research analyst” has got the very first sentence wrong…North Korea has NOT raised any tension…nor is any anxiety aroused coming out of NK…

    North Korea has, on more than one occasion in the past, responded positively and shown willingness to cooperate with suggestions towards peace in the Peninsula…it has consistently been rebuffed… (see my earlier posting on this blog)

    So to all you North Korea specialists…each time you present your articles please insert at least a paragraph so that readers can realise that North Korea is not a war monger…never has been…

    If you care to study the history of the Korean War you can see that war is not in the interest of either North or South Korea…

    And ASEAN? It CAN play a crucial part…by using diplomacy to try to bring about reconciliation between the North and South..

    • “North Korea has NOT raised any tension…nor is any anxiety aroused coming out of NK…”

      This is where I’ve my disagreement with you. You can say that the tension and anxiety are also caused by the American who consistently refusing recognition of DPRK and refusing providing security to the North Korean, and by the many provocative military exercises with South Korea and Japan, but the nuclear and missile programs of DPRK have, in fact, contributed tension and anxiety in the region. Although I agree those programs are mainly intended for self-preservation and self-defense.

  2. This is a pretty rational analysis. I firmly believe the US is the only country that can resolve the problems in the Korean Peninsula – either diplomatically or militarily. This is an US-DPRK problem. All DPRK wants are recognizance and security guarantee from the US. DPRK has always said that they want to engage in direct negotiations with the US but the US refused. This is a US-DPRK problem and I don’t know what ASEAN can do to make talks more likely. Only the US can decide to talk or not to talk with DPRK.

    I’ve read the analysis from Shawn Ho and Sarah Teo. It’s simply a pro-American position of the Singaporean government brown nosing the US. For geopolitical reasons, what the US is doing is trying to get anyone who is willing to involve with DPRK and they’re watching the brouhaha from the sideline. The US is capitalizing on concerns about the murder of Kim Jong-Nam on Malaysian soil, hoping ASEAN can cut ties and exert pressure on DPRK. Yes, Southeast Asia countries are important to DPRK because they provide economic and security lifeline for them. But other than those who have trade relations with DPRK, ASEAN by itself has nothing to give to help break this stalemate. Moreover, ASEAN’s hands are tied with the lingering tensions over the South China Sea and that the organization has been ineffectual and leaderless with its consensus-based decision making principle. It’s not working in any meaningful way to resolve security issues. The divisions in ASEAN over the South China Sea connected to China are likely to resonate over North Korea as well.

    Moreover, North Korea won’t even listen to China, what makes anyone thinks that they would even bother with ASEAN? The influence of China over North Korea is way over exaggerated by the US. China has long known the American trick of passing the DPRK problem to them. China is in a tough position. They don’t want to see North Korea be destabilized but, on the other hand, steps that DPRK is taking is destabilizing the whole region. China has been reluctant to upset the status quo in North Korea and risk an influx of refugees from its neighbor. I’m not optimistic that China can do much more than rhetoric against North Korea. China has strong reservations about pushing DPRK too hard and are willing to live with the nuclear program to avoid a collapse of the regime.

    The relationship between China and DPRK has been cooling off way before Trump got to the White House. The presidents of both countries have not met since Kim Jong-Un took power in 2011. Two weeks ago, North Korea’s state media published a rare criticism of China, saying Chinese state media commentaries calling for tougher sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program were undermining relations with Beijing and worsening tensions. This depicts a clear deterioration in the bilateral relationship between China and DPRK over the last few years as the latter accelerated its nuclear and missile programs despite Beijing’s objections. This is a rare instance of North Korea’s official media expressing unhappiness with China and maybe shows that DPRK is trying to re-balance their relationship.

    In fact, I see a new East Asian power alignment is shaping up on the Korean Peninsula as the newly elected President of ROK begins to distance itself from the US to establish better relations with DPRK and Russia is entering the mix. While China is withdrawing from DPRK, Russia is making advances. Russia is developing stronger economic ties with North Korea. “Russia and North Korea increased their bilateral trade during January and February of this year by 73 per cent when compared to the same period in 2016,” the Russia state news agency Sputnik reported in May, adding that “Russian exports to North Korea have increased by 149.1 per cent”. This was three months after China announced its embargo on coal exports to DPRK. China accounts for almost 90 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade, and coal is the regime’s top export, meaning Beijing’s decision gives enormous weight to the international sanctions, which are intended to deter Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear missiles program.

    Russian President Putin expressed opposition to the provocation of the American and ROK military exercises, and warned against “intimidating” the North. Such rhetoric is worrying because the main obstacle to effective sanctions against the North has been China’s participation, and now that China finally seems to be on board, Russia is seen to be undermining those sanctions by increasing its own trade with DPRK. Moscow recently opened a new ferry line from Vladivostok to the North Korean city of Rajin. Russian officials also visited the North in January to investigate upgrading the Rajin-Hasan railway. In addition, the two countries reached a labor immigration agreement to add to the 40,000 North Korean timber and construction workers already in Russia. All these moves have helped Pyongyang in the face of sanctions.

    South Korean President Moon Jae-In has talked about establishing “economic belts” with the North and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a source of significant income. While Russia and South Korea are lining up to offer North Korea economic relief, and relations between ROK and the US have become uneasy, ties between the US and China have begun to improve. To the dismay of Moon’s more extreme pro-communist supporters, who hoped Seoul would move out of the sphere of US influence in favor of better ties with China, DPRK and Russia, Trump and Xi Jinping reached a landmark deal on May 11 to greatly expand US imports to China, including liquefied natural gas, undermining the historic gas pipeline deal between Russia and China three years ago. The day after Trump and Xi’s announcement, Moon – two days into office – announced that he intended to reintroduce the Korea-Russia gas pipeline project. And now Russia is boosting trade with North Korea. Russia is counterbalancing closer US-China relations by improving ties with DPRK and ROK.

    This new East Asian power alignment came as a complete surprise to me, because when Trump was first elected, presumably with the assistance of Russia, I was thinking the US and Russia would be dancing together on the DPRK issue. But the way things are going, it’s exactly the opposite. China is helping the US and Russia is going the other way. And anyone thinks ASEAN can afford to play this “Big Boys” game?

    • My first paragraph should read: “All DPRK wants are recognition…”, not ‘recognizance’. Sorry.

  3. The way forward is to recognise that after more than half a century of standoffs in the region, the time has come for a completely new thinking on the issue…and recent attempts of South Korea for a new opening with their northern brothers must be welcomed… in fact it is South Korea that, to my mind, has always had both the ace card and the economic means to break the deadlock…

    The newly elected President of the South ought to take a cue from the leader of the Philippines and begin to think outside the box…and the fact that South Korea has indicated a desire to get closer to ASEAN gives the latter an opportunity to perhaps play a role in pushing both sides along…remind both that the continuing division of the Peninsula no longer makes any sense now that the Cold War is over.

    Even Japan and Taiwan are busy doing what only a few years ago was thought impossible…investing massively in China… just imagine if North and South Korea come together… what a prize that will be for the whole of Asia,,,

    • //The newly elected President of the South ought to take a cue from the leader of the Philippines and begin to think outside the box…a desire to get closer to ASEAN gives the latter an opportunity to perhaps play a role in pushing both sides along…

      I have a different impression that President Duterte was pulling US and China apart 😦

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