ASEAN: The reluctant ‘middle-man’ in the inter-Korean peace process

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Seoul believes that increased ASEAN involvement with North Korea will help rapprochement. Some ASEAN members, however, are cautious about becoming further embroiled in the Korean issue.


ASEAN has become a central feature of Seoul’s New Southern Policy (NSP). It includes an incentive for ASEAN members to further facilitate South Korean engagement with North Korea to bring stability to the Korean peninsula.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, gave a speech on the final day of his visit to Singapore, stressing that “peace in the Korean peninsula will bring great prosperity to Asia.” Some ASEAN members, however, have expressed concerns over heightened involvement in the inter-Korean peace process.

ASEAN has maintained its neutral stance and would like to keep it that way

ASEAN nations have relatively strong relations with Pyongyang. Through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the only multilateral platform where the DPRK is a member, both South and North Korea are given a platform to communicate in regards to security issues. The ARF has been a vital channel for communication between Pyongyang and the international community.

ASEAN states and North Korea have high levels of interaction. Currently, five member-states have diplomatic missions in Pyongyang —Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam.

This is due to what the DPRK calls an established “Traditional Friendship.” This connection was built through its warm historical ties with fellow communist-socialist nations such as Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as through Indonesia’s former communist- leaning leader, Soekarno. ASEAN, therefore, is seen as a trusted partner to the DPRK. With strong ties to both Koreas, ASEAN is perfectly positioned to act as a “middle-man” between the North and South.

ASEAN can provide an avenue for dialogue

ASEAN finds itself in a precarious situation. Moon’s NSP policy will see the development of stronger South Korea-ASEAN ties in an attempt to counterbalance ASEAN’s historic ties to North Korea. However, ASEAN’s centrality cannot guarantee tangible results. ASEAN can facilitate dialogue by hosting summits (as it did for President Trump and Kim Jong Un) and offering communication platform through its ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), but that is all it can offer without risking its neutrality.

North Korea appears to be satisfied with using ASEAN nations as a go-between. According to Dr. Hoo Chiew Ping of the National University of Malaysia, North Korea has reached out to a Myanmar think-tank to host a dialogue on the Korean peninsula.

A greater role, however, could have some advantages for ASEAN

The New Southern Policy (NSP) aims to elevate the status of South Korea’s relationship with ASEAN on par with its relationship with the US, China, Japan, and Russia.

Deepening economic ties with South Korea would help ASEAN nations finance their ambitious infrastructure drives. South Korea is already funnelling money into hydroelectric projects on the Mekong River. Korean investors are also exploring financing opportunities surrounding the US$6 billion Singapore-Kunming Rail Network.

There is also the possibility for increased developmental assistance for ASEAN members. South Korea is one of the largest developmental assistance providers for ASEAN nations. Deeper economic ties could see this increase.

Should progress be made, and international sanctions against North Korea lifted, ASEAN would also find itself in a strong position to economically engage with the DPRK.

Before the introduction of tighter international sanctions, North Korea boasted strong economic ties with ASEAN. From 2000 to 2006, trade with ASEAN nations accounted for 12% of North Korea’s trade. Southeast Asia still serves as an opportunity for North Korea to avoid international sanctions through its broad formal and informal economic sectors.

This prompted the U.S, to threaten several ASEAN states with the punishment of companies and individuals that engage in illegal trading with Pyongyang. The US Treasury Department called on several Singaporean companies to cease money laundering activities to facilitate North Korean trade.

According to Dr. Tang Siew Mun, the head of ASEAN Studies centre at ISEAS-Yushof Ishak Institute, “the resumption of trade would allow other bilateral engagement such as cultural, educational, and tourism to follow suit.”

The unstable relationship between the US and North Korea puts ASEAN in a precarious position

Although the historic meeting in June between Trump and Kim Jong Un gave a fresh breeze to the crisis, the relationship between the two is too unpredictable and fragile to risk engaging further with the DPRK.

Mr. Moon has admitted that “the working-level talks between the US and DPRK would not all be smooth sailing.” The US has promised to take corresponding comprehensive measures such as ending their hostile relationship and as well as sanctions if North Korea engages in the denuclearization process.

But recent U.S intelligence findings suggest that North Korea is continuing to build illegal intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs).

While there are some advantages for ASEAN in strengthening its involvement in Inter-Korea peace process, maintaining its neutrality is essential for ASEAN’s diplomatic objectives.

Lending itself as a platform for communication between the two Korea’s will bring short-term economic gain to ASEAN. However, when dealing with leaders like Trump and Kim, who are both known for their inconsistency, smooth waters can quickly become turbulent. Donald Trump has alluded to a second meeting with Kim in January or February 2019. ASEAN will be looking for signs of warming relations as it weighs up its next move.