When North Korea Meets ASEAN

North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun is expected to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum this week.

The 18th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has just kicked off in Indonesia, with 27 member states planning on attending. The ARF includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ traditional membership alongside regional players, such as Russia, the United States, China, India, Japan, and Pakistan.  

The ARF will cover a wide array of regional security and defence issues, including the South China Sea maritime dispute and the Thai-Cambodia border conflict. However, one of the key things to watch will be a thorny problem that won’t be talked about in great length during the three days of meetings, and which isn’t usually seen as a primary concern for Southeast Asian states.  

North Korea, an ARF member, has indicated that it will send a delegation to Bali headed by Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun. This announcement comes at an interesting time in relations between North and South Korea. Despite intense political pressure to take a harder line against Pyongyang after the sinking last year of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the government in Seoul has dropped its earlier stance of demanding an apology from the North before returning to the Six-Party Talks on the country’s nuclear weapons programme. Meanwhile, North Korea has refrained from belligerent actions against its neighbour since the Yeonpyeong bombardment, recognizing that Seoul likely would respond with much more force in the event of another attack.    

When asked about a potential discussion with Pak Ui-chun, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan remarked that he ‘would not refuse’ an informal bilateral meeting. Kim continued to open the door a little more by noting that he’s open to any channel of discussion regardless of which side initiates the process. This development isn’t surprising considering that South Korea has been trying for months to establish an inter-Korean dialogue on the nuclear weapons issue, which would serve to complement—and perhaps stimulate—the stalled Six-Party Talks.   

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During a recent meeting between chief nuclear diplomats from South Korea and Japan, it was agreed by both sides that the optimal path was to combine both diplomatic tracks, bilateral and multilateral. This policy direction also falls in line with the US State Department, which continues to believe that it’s appropriate for inter-Korean dialogue and a resumption of the Six-Party talks before any direct bilateral discussions between Pyongyang and Washington. 

North Korea has been fairly quiet on the potential of a pull-aside with Seoul on the margins of the ARF. It will be interesting to see if one of the most important developments from this week’s meetings comes from Northeast Asia instead of Southeast Asia.