On November 13 last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vehemently condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests during a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Manila’s Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). When asked about North Korea’s belligerent conduct, Duterte accused Pyongyang of keeping the Asia-Pacific region “hostage” to the threat of nuclear weapons, and claimed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be “responsible for ending life on this planet if his mind goes out of control.”
Even though the Philippines was North Korea’s third largest trade partner until September 2017, Duterte’s comments reflect Manila’s increasingly hawkish attitude toward Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Duterte’s growing hostility toward Pyongyang can be explained by rising concerns about the threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests to the security of the Philippines. Despite this hostile rhetoric, Duterte has resolutely supported a nonviolent solution to the North Korean crisis. The strategy Duterte has advanced within ASEAN to resolve the North Korean crisis delicately balances the policy preferences of China, the United States, and Japan to strengthen the Philippines’ relationships with these three critical strategic partners.
The North Korean Threat to the Philippines
Despite the marked improvement in Philippines-North Korea relations after the end of the Cold War, relations between Manila and Pyongyang have been historically fraught with mutual mistrust. The Philippines’ support for South Korea during the Korean War and strident anti-communist orientation under former President Ferdinand Marcos derailed Manila’s efforts to thaw relations with Pyongyang during the 1970s. After Marcos’ overthrow in 1986, North Korea’s military links to the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist insurgency movement in the Philippines, and history of using embassies for illicit activities prevented trade links from converting into favorable diplomatic relations between Manila and Pyongyang.
These negative memories help explain the degree of antagonism and insecurity felt by Philippine officials toward North Korea’s nuclear program. In addition, Philippine policymakers believe that North Korea poses a direct threat to their country’s national security for two reasons. First, many Filipinos are concerned that a North Korean nuclear test could directly threaten the territory of the Philippines. These fears are premised on past experience. In December 2012, debris from a North Korean rocket launch landed off the coast of northern Luzon, heightening concerns in Manila about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
As North Korea has singled out Guam as a potential target, the prospect of a more damaging repeat of this scenario has increased considerably. As Asia-Pacific security expert Robert Kelley noted in May 2017, the Philippines is likely to be on the flight path for a North Korean missile launch against Guam. While Philippine Armed Forces spokesperson Restituto Padilla countered this assessment by insisting on August 12 last year that the prospect of nuclear debris landing in the Philippines is minimal, many Filipinos remain apprehensive about the potentially pernicious spillover effects emanating from a North Korean nuclear test.
Second, North Korea’s nuclear program poses a major security threat to Asia-Pacific countries with large numbers of Filipino guest workers. The heightened prospect of a military confrontation between North Korea and South Korea has increased concerns in Manila about the welfare of Filipino migrant workers in South Korea. Even though the South Korean government has taken steps to curb the increase in foreign workers in its manufacturing sector, the percentage of Filipino guest workers has continued to rise, reaching a peak of 14 percent of all foreign workers in South Korea in 2015. If North Korean aggression deters capital investments to South Korea, the welfare of the 650,000 Filipino expat workers in South Korea will be imperiled.
Instability on the Korean peninsula is an unwelcome development for policymakers in Manila, as the Philippines’ rapid economic growth under Duterte has been partially dependent on extensive remittance revenues entering the country. As the Philippines is the third largest provider of guest workers to Japan and approximately 47,000 Filipinos live in Guam, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship has jeopardized the safety of an unacceptably high number of Filipino nationals, increasing Duterte’s concerns about North Korean aggression.
Manila’s Diplomatic Strategy to Resolve the North Korean Crisis
Even though Duterte has become increasingly critical of North Korean belligerence, Philippine policymakers have continued to insist that the security crisis can only be resolved through nonviolent means. The manner in which Manila has framed its diplomatic strategy toward North Korea strikes a delicate balance between the policy preferences of China, the United States, and Japan, and underscores Duterte’s desire to maintain strong diplomatic relations with all three great powers.
To demonstrate Manila’s solidarity with China’s position on North Korea, Duterte has expressed support for diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime. On October 29, Duterte made an impassioned plea to Western and Asian leaders to diplomatically engage with Kim Jong-un, and claimed that dialogue with North Korea’s leadership was essential to avoid a nuclear war. To further highlight the synergy of perspectives of Manila and Beijing, Duterte elaborated on his calls for diplomacy by declaring that only China could prevent North Korea from instigating a nuclear war.
In addition to expressing sympathy with Chinese diplomatic initiatives on the Korean peninsula, Philippine policymakers have echoed China’s calls for a less restrictive sanctions regime against North Korea. On October 24, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana claimed that imposing extremely restrictive sanctions against North Korea increases the likelihood of Pyongyang committing an act of aggression out of economic desperation.
Even though the Philippines’ preferred strategy to deal with North Korea differs markedly from what U.S. President Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric would suggest, Duterte has managed to find common ground with Washington by using his chairmanship ASEAN last year to at least try to better unite Southeast Asian countries against North Korea. These efforts were applauded by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim in a December 4 public statement, and underscored Manila’s commitment to closer policy coordination between Washington and ASEAN on preserving collective security.
To accommodate Japan’s perspective, Manila’s strategy for a nonviolent resolution of the North Korean security crisis has included a strong endorsement of military deterrence. Duterte has expressed support for Abe’s strategy of deterring North Korean aggression by expanding Japan’s military capabilities. As Duterte’s October 30 expression of solidarity with Abe on the North Korean crisis coincided with the Japanese government’s decision to provide Manila with $9 billion in aid, the Philippines is likely to continue to emphasize the value of military deterrence to its ASEAN counterparts for the foreseeable future.
Even though the Philippines has stepped up its criticisms of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests in recent months, Manila remains resolutely committed to peacefully resolving the North Korean security crisis. As Duterte attempts to strike a balance between the Philippines’ traditional alliance with the United States and pursuit of new security partners, Manila is likely to use its influence within the ASEAN bloc to call for a strategy that fuses deterrence and diplomacy. This strategy could distinguish the Philippines from some of its less outspoken ASEAN counterparts and could increase Duterte’s influence within the Asia-Pacific security sphere in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post and National Interest magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2.