Asean does matter in South Korea’s strategy on North Korea, given Asean can enable a conductive environment for dialogue, trust building and conflict prevention.
North Korea is the member of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) – the only regional mechanism that North Korea is part of.
Asean has certain diplomatic and economic leverage on North Korea.
Amid the rising security threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the latest missile test only yesterday, South Korea has recently sought to strengthen its strategic and security cooperation with Asean to forge a collective of diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea with the hope of having a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
At the recent 50th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila, the ministers urged North Korea to “fully and immediately comply with its obligations arising from all the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions”.
They called for the “exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue in order to de-escalate tensions and create conditions conductive to peace and stability”.
South Korea is an old dialogue partner of Asean. South Korea became a sectorial dialogue partner of Asean in 1989 and a full dialogue partner in 2001.
South Korea is now one of the key partners of Asean, especially in economic cooperation.
Asean is the second largest trading partner of South Korea, while South Korea is the fifth largest trading partner of Asean after China, Japan, the European Union and the United States.
Asean is South Korean’s second largest investment destination after the US. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from South Korea reached $4.16 billion in 2016, accounting for 15.3 percent of South Korea’s global foreign investments.
Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam are the main recipients of South Korean investment.
Concerning security and strategic cooperation with Asean, South Korea is relatively left behind compared with China, the US and Japan. One of the reasons is that South Korea is not confident and capable enough to expand its strategic space in Southeast Asia.
South Korea’s foreign policy has been focusing on the US, Japan and China. North Korea’s nuclear programme is regarded as a core national security threat.
Hence South Korea’s defence policy is very much shaped by the threat from North Korea.
Seoul has recently started considering Asean an important strategic partner in dealing with North Korea, given Southeast Asia is one of the main economic and diplomatic breathing grounds of North Korea.
Dual-track approaches have been carried out in engaging North Korea, including pressure and dialogues. The US, under Donald Trump’s leadership, has opted for more pressure on Pyongyang, while seeking direct talks.
President Trump has urged China to put more pressure on North Korea. China has the strongest leverage on North Korea.
China prefers to use dialogue to ease the ongoing tension on the Korean peninsula.
The US has sometimes sent mixed, confusing signals to its regional allies and partners.
South Korea and Japan prefer to use diplomatic measures, while seeking more international pressure to isolate and punish North Korea’s violation of the UN Security Council resolutions.
The US will not take unilateral military action against Kim Jong-un without consultation with and consensus from South Korea and Japan.
Strengthening South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation is expected to better manage the North Korea issue. But the South Korea-Japan relationship is constrained by historical antagonism and nationalism, weakening the trilateral cooperation.
South Korea and Japan need to downplay their nationalism cards and start working closer together to deal with North Korea.
Asean is an important regional actor in assuaging the tension on the Korean peninsula and providing a channel for multilateral dialogue. Asean has earned convening power- building cooperation and trust through dialogue.
South Korea needs to craft a strategy to work with Asean. Through strengthening regional strategic and security roles, South Korea can also contribute to building a strategic equilibrium and enhancing security multilateralism in East Asia.
“A closer and deeper strategic cooperation between Asean and Korea is a useful way to revive regional multilateral cooperation in East Asia”, wrote Jaehyon Lee from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Chiew-Ping Hoo from the National University of Malaysia said: “South Korea shall utilitise Asean’s diplomatic centrality in approaching North Korea, allowing the third party’s neutrality to facilitate the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue through the Asean platform.”
North Korea’s nuclear issue cannot be settled unless the international community can work together to effectively enforce the UN resolutions.
Asean has played its role as part of the global endeavour in preventing nuclear proliferation.
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.