Considering Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul and Washington have deteriorated since 2019, ASEAN could play a strategic role in integrating North Korea to the wider international community.


Under the New Southern Policy (NSP), first declared by President Moon Jae-in in 2017, the Republic of Korea (ROK, hereafter South Korea) and Southeast Asian states share common interests in advancing bilateral and regional cooperation. Nonetheless, it is intriguing that the prospective role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in inter-Korean affairs has not been explored to its fullest under the NSP. 

While the world is engrossed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, inter-Korean relations are at a stalemate. In a region known for its dynamic economic growth, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, hereafter North Korea) is the only country in East Asia that has a reputation for reclusiveness. 

Despite three inter-Korean summits and two US-North Korea meetings in Singapore and Hanoi between 2018 and 2019, North Korea began to disengage itself from all forms of diplomacy in 2019. Against this backdrop of a fragile regional security outlook, ASEAN has a role to play in building trust among warring parties on the Korean Peninsula. The NSP provides a political opportunity for South Korea and ASEAN to forge inter-regional cooperation to engage Pyongyang and integrate economically into the East Asian community. 

As it is well known, the NSP is underlined by “Three Ps”: People, Prosperity and Peace. While the NSP has shown success in reaffirming the ASEAN-ROK relations socially and economically, the policy is quite enervated where security aspects are concerned, especially when it relates to ASEAN’s role in advocating peace on the Korean Peninsula. 

For decades, ASEAN has faithfully supported Seoul’s position towards North Korean denuclearisation. During his visits to all 10 ASEAN Member States (AMS), President Moon repeatedly urged the regional governments to get involved in the Korean Peninsula peace process and to integrate North Korea into regional affairs. To date, however, besides asking for support, there has not been a concrete South Korean proposal as to how else ASEAN can contribute, therefore ASEAN remains secondary to the involvement of bigger powers. 

To be fair, it is also unclear the extent to which AMS will want to play a larger role in North Korean affairs. According to Toru Takahashi, the Editor-in-Chief of Nikkei Asia, when President Joko Widodo of Indonesia suggested North Korea be invited to the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-South Korea Summit in 2019, Singapore and Thailand opposed, resulting in only South Korea extending the invitation to Kim Jong-un. 

AMS must understand that Northeast and Southeast Asia are interlinked politically, economically and socially, and any security incidents triggered by North Korea will significantly affect Southeast Asia’s development. After the alleged 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam – the step brother of Kim Jong-un – in Kuala Lumpur, the world discovered the extent to which North Korean illicit economic and financial activities were commonplace in the region. 

Equally distressing is the fact that missile experts estimate that North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missiles have a maximum range of 4,500 kilometres, which are capable of reaching Southeast Asia. Accordingly, ASEAN needs to ensure a North Korean denuclearisation or some form of security arrangement is in place. In order to do that, a stable East Asian region requires not only US and South Korean participation, but also ASEAN whose members have relatively decent relations with North Korea. ASEAN can play the role of a facilitator between the two Koreas and become an ancillary avenue for the United States and other major powers in engaging Pyongyang. 

Given the fact that Kim Jong-un had chosen Singapore and Vietnam as summit locations, it is reasonable to argue that not only did he view ASEAN as a neutral entity, he also showed a keen interest in the economic development of these states. In this regard, these two Southeast Asian states are blue chips that Pyongyang can emulate in terms of understanding how to achieve economic modernisation that Kim Jong-un aspires to. 

According to the 2019 ASEAN Integration Report, ASEAN is already the fifth largest economy in the world. Therefore, in the post COVID-19 era, there is ample room for the organisation to amalgamate North Korea into the regional economic expansion. 

Currently, North Korea’s engagement with ASEAN is limited to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) at the Track One and Track Two levels. North Korea is not a member of other ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and ASEAN Ministerial Meetings with Dialogue Partners. 

Considering that these platforms will provide a range of opportunities for North Korea to enhance cooperation and increase mutual understanding with all parties involved, it can be concluded that Pyongyang would certainly welcome an invite as a dialogue partner. 

However, there is a caveat to this undertaking. ASEAN rejected North Korea’s request to become a dialogue partner in 2016 due to the frequent missile tests that year, despite the fact that North Korea has acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), a prerequisite to become a dialogue partner. 

Since North Korea’s relations with both Seoul and Washington are in tatters, now is a good time to reconsider inviting North Korea as a dialogue partner of ASEAN. In so doing, ASEAN can serve as an indispensable avenue for Pyongyang to directly engage with other dialogue partners regularly. In the event the dialogue partnership request is accepted, North Korea then should appoint a resident ambassador to ASEAN. Such a move would allow North Korean interests and policies to be represented in ASEAN. 

Recently, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted that it is willing to work with ASEAN through the ARF in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula. Further, the North openly declared that ASEAN was fair when dealing with Pyongyang. Against this backdrop, there is a diplomatic opportunity for Pyongyang-Seoul relations to improve with ASEAN playing the role of a mediator. 

Admittedly, a Seoul-ASEAN-Pyongyang pyramidal cooperation is the least explored option by policymakers and scholars alike, until President Moon introduced the NSP. In comparison to other regional organisations, ASEAN is better qualified than most to keep North Korea continually engaged as well as providing a favourable setting for addressing the state’s legitimate concerns. 

With US efforts faltering, it is time South Korea considers embracing neighbourhood partnership to maintain a peaceful security environment in the East Asian region. The NSP provides an incredible opportunity for ASEAN to become a bridge builder between the two Koreas and to wheedle North Korea to end its isolation as well as commit to the denuclearisation process. All the policy needs are a sound strategy forward and political will from all involved. For these reasons, if the NSP’s Peace pillar is going to contribute to the Korean peace agenda, South Korea needs to earmark resources and strategy that will integrate North Korea into the region through ASEAN.

Geetha Govindasamy is Senior Lecturer in Department of East Asian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), University of Malaya

- Advertisement -