OPINION-ASEAN | Will Laos continue to maintain the ASEAN Stance on the Korean Peninsula Issue?

The Japanese-style North Korean restaurant Tokyo Sushi & Teppanyaki restaurant in Vientiane in July 2023. NK News


This year is a tough year for Laos, who has taken the rotating Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from Indonesia. ASEAN is facing multiple challenges including the South China Sea issue, the Myanmar crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Cross-strait issue, and the nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula. There is no doubt that Laos would put a lot of effort to play its role as ASEAN chairmanship, the Laos Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saleumxay Kommasith, expressed readiness for Laos to be the chair of ASEAN. Doubts however remain of Laos’ commitment on the Korean Peninsula issue. The issue has gained momentum recently following North Korea’s increasingly testing and developing missiles and intercontinental ballistic missile.




ASEAN is aiming to maintain its role as a regional platform by facilitating the regional conflict particularly on the intensifying rivalry between the US and China. For this reason, ASEAN cannot ignore any emerging issues on either the Korean Peninsula Issue or Russia’s Ukraine war, regardless of ASEAN’s effort or willingness to deal with those issue. So far, ASEAN has shown its interest in the Korean Peninsula issue, which can help to boost ASEAN’s role as a platform to deal with regional issues and engage with external actors. This can be exemplified by ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which consists of 27 members including ASEAN member states, ASEAN Dialogue Partners, and other countries including North Korea. ASEAN has put a lot of effort into keeping North Korea as part of ARF even though there was pressure to kick North Korea out of the forum. Simultaneously, ASEAN has also frequently expressed concerns of North Korea developing and testing of nuclear weapons and missiles. This can be seen during the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh, and 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, which expressed ‘grave concerns’ of North Korea’s continuing testing of ballistic and intercontinental ballistic missiles. This is an indication that ASEAN will continue to engage with North Korea while also putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea to comply with international law and norms. The previous ASEAN Chairmanships showed a strong stance against North Korea’s testing of ballistic and intercontinental ballistic missiles, it could be doubtful as to what extent Laos could leverage ASEAN to put pressure on North Korea.


Currently, Laos is probably one of the very few countries in Southeast Asia, after Myanmar and Cambodia to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea. The diplomatic ties of the two communist countries were established in 1974. It is believed that since Kim Jong-Un became North Korea’s supreme leader, there has been frequent exchange of visits and diplomatic engagement between the two countries. In 2012, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong-Nam and North Korean People’s Army Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-Ho visited Laos. In 2016, Kim Jong-Un personal assistant Kim Yong Chol visited Laos and met with Laos People’s Revolutionary Party General-Secretary Bounnhang Vorachith in Vientiane. The exchange of high level visits, indicates strong bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, as a good gesture to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea, in 2013 Laos deported 9 North Korean refugees back to Pyongyang, despite the request from South Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send the refugees to Seoul.


The commitment to maintain the relations can be seen via the exchange of high-level meetings even after the UNSC reinforced sanction against North Korea in 2017. In October 2020, the two communist countries commemorated the 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In addition, in 2023, Laos’ President Thongloun Sisoulith expressed commitment to strengthen relations with North Korea after receiving birthday wishes from North Korean leader, Kim Jung-Un. Such a gesture is rarely seen among ASEAN countries. Currently, there are a few North Korean restaurants in Vientiane such as the Paektu Hanna Restaurant. The restaurant is believed to be involved with money laundering and cybercrime.

Currently, North Korea is probably trying to strengthen its diplomatic relations with other non-alignment movement countries such as Russia. North Korea is probably also trying to win diplomatic support from Laos, who is at ASEAN’s helm this year. However, Vientiane would not change ASEAN’s tough stance on North Korea. Firstly, the relations between Laos and North Korea are merely symbolic and do not provide reciprocal interest to each other. This can be seen that the two communist countries signed various documents regarding trade and cooperation. For example, in 2008, the two countries signed an agreement to create a joint committee to strengthen cooperation in trade, science and technology. Also, the two countries signed an “Agreement on Cooperation’’ in March 2020. However, there seems to be no tangible result including the increasing of trade and economic relations between the two countries. The continuation of relations merely resulted from both countries being communist countries.


Secondly, by changing its stance on North Korea, it could be detrimental to Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship. ASEAN Chairmanship is an invaluable opportunity for Laos to strengthen its positive image and influence among regional and international actors, especially at a time when the international community repeatedly expressed concerns over North Korea’s action. During the 24th ASEAN Lecture, conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on December 7, 2023, Laos Foreign Minister also raised the Korean Peninsula as a multi-dimensional for ASEAN. This year, Laos also wants to increase its influence and standing among middle and major powers via the East Asia Forum which will be participated by leaders from major powers including the US, China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Russia, and New Zealand. In this light, Laos would feel the need to maintain ASEAN’s tough stance on North Korea and dealing with many other issues that ASEAN is facing. During Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship in 2016, Laos also expressed concerns of North Korea’s nuclear testing, the testing of ballistic missile and submarine ballistic missiles. The same concerns were expressed by ASEAN’s Chair statement in 2015 and 2017 when Malaysia and Philippine were ASEAN Chairs’ respectively. This indicates that Laos is more concerned with its role within ASEAN rather than its bilateral relations with North Korea.


Against this backdrop, even though Laos still maintains formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, it is not in Laos’ interest to defend North Korea. Doing so could be detrimental to its role as chair of ASEAN and the association as a whole.

The writer is research fellow at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies (CCRS). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of CCRS.





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