May 19, 2017 11:53 pm JST

ASEAN seeking a role in North Korea diplomacy

Former secretary-general proposes sending a special envoy to the six-party talks

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan speaks in a seminar in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- A former top official from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Friday that the 10-member group could play a peace broker role in the ongoing crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

"I [would] like to see the appointment of an ARF special envoy on the Korean Peninsula," said Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of ASEAN. ARF refers to the ASEAN Regional Forum, a group that discusses security issues and include all members of ASEAN and the six-party security talks on North Korea: the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, North and South Korea.

The six-party negotiations took place off and on between 2003 and 2007, aiming to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programs, but without much success. The talks have been shelved since then, as the U.S. grew concerned that it might get dragged into bargaining with North Korea. 

"My assumption is, if any country is going to make any concession to anyone, it is not going to be the next adversary," Surin said. An ASEAN envoy could move among the six capitals and help find them common ground, he added.

Surin, a former Thai foreign minister, made the remarks at a symposium marking the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, which was originally created to give small Southeast Asian nations a collective voice in the international community. Surin emphasized that the a group has grown into a major player that is ready to take on a more prominent security role.

ASEAN has reasons of its own to take steps to reduce tensions with Pyongyang. In February, North Korean agents murdered Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Malaysia, exposing Southeast Asia as a haven for North Korean agents despite international efforts to isolate the regime.

The region is trying to show initiative on the issue before outsiders put it under pressure to take action.

"The ARF should be given a role," Surin said. "If ASEAN and ARF are too weak, too feeble and too ineffective to handle this big challenge, the question is, when is it going to grow up?"

"ASEAN still has a role to play," he said, "because there are a lot of flashpoints here in the landscape of East Asia." ASEAN should not "just a trading bloc," he added, but should aspire to be "the platform of the ... Asia-Pacific in the 21st century."

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