ASEAN & North Korea

North Korea seemed to be a topic of concern at this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum.

J. Berkshire Miller

For the second year in a row, North Korea has become a sticking point at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

The forum, held in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, was ushered in with Pyongyang’s insistence that it must maintain its nuclear weapons program in order to deter hostile U.S. policy aimed at regime change. North Korean Foreign Minister Park Ui-chun reportedlyexpressed these sentiments to the other ARF ministers stressing that the North needs to “safeguard our sovereignty from constant nuclear threats of the U.S.”

While the ARF is the central security gathering for ASEAN, the membership has been extended beyond Southeast Asia to include regional powers such as the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and Pakistan. North Korea also regularlyattends these meetings.

The atmosphere at this year’s summit was markedly different than last year when Ui-chun met with his South Korean counterpart on the sidelines to explore a potential resumption of intra-Korean talks.

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Pyongyang continues to follow aperfidiousroad with South Korea and the U.S. North Korea’s intransigence on its latent uranium enrichment program – coupled with a growing ballistic missile infrastructure – remains the most pressing strategic concern for Seoul. However – the North presents other regional problems for the U.S. Its truculence has awkwardly placed Washington in a position to negotiate bilaterally thus hindering the prospect of serious resumption of the moribund Six Party Talks.

At last year’s ARF, Ui-chun’s overture to South Korea aimed to divide the members of the Six Party Talks and isolate Japan and Russia. Pyongyang is especially interested in limiting Japan’s influence in any future discussions on its nuclear program. This would allow North Korea to effectively bypass its significantbilateraltrustdeficitwith Tokyo marred by the unresolved cases of abducted Japanese nationals and missile testing over Japan’s territory. Pyongyang seems determined to go this route again with itscyclicalpolicy of provocation followed by negotiation.

The ARF continues to be an interesting venue for dealing with North Korea. ASEAN’s significance on regional security issues hassteadilyincreased over the past decade. This has been coupled with the West’s rapprochement with Burma which has turned the focus of the ARF from regional pariahs in Southeast Asia to areas outside of ASEAN such as North Korea. There is a potential for overstretch here though as ASEAN still has dormant conflicts within its ranks. It will be interesting to see how ASEAN – and the ARF specifically – can leverage its growing influence as a security mechanism to address concerns like North Korea.