The escalation of tensions between the United States and North Korea is cause for concern within ASEAN. During the recently concluded 24th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on his counterparts to take a stronger line against North Korea. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers responded by urging North Korea to comply with all United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The Chairman of the ARF, in an August 7 statement, also noted that “some Ministers reiterated their support for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner” – strong words taking into account the relatively friendly relations North Korea enjoys with members of the bloc.
Despite being considered by many as a pariah State, all 10-members of ASEAN have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Pyongyang maintains embassies in eight ASEAN member states, the exceptions being the Philippines and Brunei. North Korean diplomats also maintain a presence in foreign countries for distinctly undiplomatic activities. A prime example is the assassination Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur’s airport in February, which led to the souring of relations between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang. A senior diplomat, believed by police to have had a hand in the assassination was allowed to leave the country in an agreement brokered between both countries to allow Malaysian diplomats in North Korea to return home.
ASEAN-North Korean relations are both cordial and complex. Indonesia has enjoyed a relatively warm relationship with North Korea dating back to the 1960s. In March, the UN issued a report linking a Singaporean company to a North Korean firm involved in arms sales. The nation-state has vowed to thoroughly investigate the allegations. Imports from Thailand and the Philippines place both ASEAN countries among North Korea’s top five importers behind China, India, and Russia. ASEAN’s external trade statistics put total trade between ASEAN and North Korea at about $184.6 million in 2015. Representing the few friends North Korea retains in the international community, ASEAN has an important role to play in bringing pressure to bear on the rogue state by restricting trade and downgrading diplomatic relations to force Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.
The Philippines, taking over as ASEAN Chair this year, has a heavy load to carry. Mindful of ASEAN’s fundamental principles of non-intervention, and decision-making through consensus, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has stated that he is limited to huddling with his counterparts in what will be a “very hard decision. “
Experts are now suggesting that North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has the potential to target cities 7,000 miles away, allowing it to reach the continental United States. There is a potential nuclear war brewing in ASEAN’s backyard. While Tillerson has been making rounds calling for a harder line against North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump is showing no sign of attempting to deescalate tensions. While ASEAN does its part to cool fraught nerves, perhaps it is high time that Trump stops baiting Kim.
Dominique F. Fernandes holds an LLB from the National University of Malaysia, and an LLM from Harvard Law School. She is an advocate and solicitor who has spent some seven years working in Malaysia’s public sector.