ASEAN as a mediator in North Korea crisis?

A combo picture showing the launch of the medium-and-long range strategic ballistic missile Hwasong-12 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. With the North’s geographical neighbours and the United States too entrenched in set policy positions, Asean, and Vietnam in particular, could provide the impetus for talking about peace. AFP PIC


SIR Winston Churchill was well known for his stirring speeches and witty quips. One very apt phrase, even if frequently misquoted, was that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”. As someone who had experienced war at first hand, Churchill was convinced that talking was better than fighting. At a time when the crisis on the Korean peninsula is escalating, with one side threatening “fire and fury” against the North Korean “rogue regime” and the other threatening “to reduce the United States to ashes”, the need for a dialogue has never been more important.

While North Korea conducts numerous missile and nuclear tests, and the US urges harsher sanctions and deploys military assets to its allies in Northeast Asia, talking may seem a far-fetched proposal. Informal US-North Korean conversations between diplomats have occurred intermittently since this year’s crisis began, but little, if any, progress has been made. The other major powers directly involved have been unable to have an impact either in bringing the two main protagonists together or in fashioning their own solution to the crisis.

China, although reluctant to see the collapse of North Korea, has become increasingly irritated by Kim Jong-un’s actions. Its calls for all sides to “remain calm” and for a “deal” on mutually suspending tests and military exercises to bring everyone back to the negotiating table have been ineffective. The Trump administration is losing faith in Chinese efforts while the North dislikes being told what to do by its bigger neighbour. Russia has been trying to edge back into Korean affairs, but is not considered important enough yet.

South Korea, under a new president who came into office committed to dialogue, has found itself marginalised and frustrated as the North rejects every conciliatory gesture it proposes and the US zigzags in its attitude to its ally. Finally, Japan, subjected to two North Korean missile over-flights in the past month, finds itself more vulnerable than it thought, yet is handicapped.

So, is there space for countries and organisations outside this group of closest actors to provide a mediating role that might defuse tensions? Two organisations that have founded their development on the ability to bring peace and stability to their immediate neighbourhoods: the European Union (EU) and Asean are likely candidates.

The European members of the United Nations Security Council and EU itself have supported US in the imposition of further sanctions on North Korea, though with the caveat that such measures are an instrument to encouraging a credible political dialogue to emerge. Certainly, EU has shown, through its involvement in the Iran nuclear issue, that its key member states can play a constructive role in facilitating a mediated solution, but North Korea has made it clear that it is not a second Iran, while the Trump administration seems to give less weight to EU in international politics.

At the Asean Regional Forum meetings last month, EU officials gained the impression that Asean members were “keen” for EU to be involved in the solution of the crisis, but distracted by Brexit, terrorism, migration and other challenges the EU may not be ready yet to be proactive. Which leaves Asean itself — or, at least key member states — as the most likely to be able to play some kind of mediating role.

Asean has, of course, also supported critical resolutions on North Korea’s recent actions, but its statements are usually accompanied by the hope that a peaceful solution to the crisis might be achieved. The North appealed, in vain, to Asean as an organisation as recently as April this year to assist in countering US policies, but Asean, nonetheless, has urged restraint and dialogue as the only way forward.

The Philippines, as the Asean chair, could have a decisive role; it has close, albeit recently somewhat tempestuous, links with the US, so its decision earlier this month to cut off all trade with North Korea fits well with US priorities, but puts it beyond the pale as far as the North is concerned.

Malaysia has strong links with the US, reinforced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s recent visit, and until this year had a relatively open relationship with North Korea, but the fallout from the Kim Jong-nam assassination makes it too sensitive for Malaysia at this stage to play a leading role.

Although Cambodia has strong links with the North, it does not have the equivalent linkage with the US, while Singapore is probably in the reverse situation. Indonesia seems to be taking a back seat in regional security leadership, focusing on enhancing its economy.

So, that leaves Vietnam as the most likely interlocutor for both sides. Not only has Vietnam had the longest relationship with the North of any Asean member, but its rigid party rule, its past war with the US and its successful drive for reunification, make it an appealing ideological partner for the North.

At the same time, as shown by the visit to Washington in May by its prime minister, Vietnam has also strengthened its economic and security links with the US. Becoming more comfortable with a higher diplomatic profile, the Vietnamese might be able to use some persuasion on the two protagonists.

With the North’s geographical neighbours and the US too entrenched in set policy positions, Asean, and Vietnam in particular, could provide the impetus for talking about peace rather than war.

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Based in Melaka, the writer is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science, Lingnan University, Hong Kong


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