September 8, 2017 2:37 pm JST
Richard Heydarian

Seoul looks to ASEAN amid nuclear crisis

Regional grouping could play key role in securing peace on Korean Peninsula

While strengthening deterrence with U.S. President Donald Trump, right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is tapping more channels to engage his northern neighbor. © AP

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations could play an effective role in easing the tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile program because of its ties to both Koreas and Seoul's hope to engage Pyongyang.

North Korea appears well on its way to becoming a nuclear power. The increased frequency of provocative missile and nuclear tests represent a "new abnormal."

As the world sleepwalks into direct confrontation, the South Korean government is scrambling for an alternative and more effective strategy. President Moon Jae-in's administration is focused on a two-track approach of direct engagement and enhanced deterrence.

Seoul is also openly seeking the assistance of fellow middle powers, particularly ASEAN, in creating a potentially new and effective path to achieving a resolution of the crisis.

Despite ASEAN's institutional and strategic deficiencies, the regional body could and should play a proactive and vital role in helping solve the North Korean conundrum. ASEAN has maintained functional communication channels with both Koreas and is broadly seen as a neutral actor, which could facilitate the restoration of dialogue among the disputing parties. Indeed, desperate times call for innovative solutions.

Middle power diplomacy

Amid the increasingly bellicose threats by U.S. President Donald Trump against North Korea, Moon rebuked the hawkish talk coming out of Washington by declaring in mid-August that, "Military action on the Korean peninsula can only be decided by South Korea, and no one else can decide to take military action without the consent of South Korea."

Moon has sought to revive the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with North Korea that was pioneered by the country's last two progressive presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. In that regard, Moon has tried to solicit support from international partners to fulfill his vision of peace. Moon views ASEAN, South Korea's second largest trade and investment partner, as a key strategic regional player.

To demonstrate its commitment to closer relations with ASEAN, Seoul hosted the International Conference on ASEAN-Korea partnership in late August, which was attended by ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh and the foreign ministers of South Korea and the Philippines, which is the current ASEAN chair.

Both South Korea and ASEAN discussed the need to strengthen their strategic, economic and institutional links. South Korea also inaugurated the ASEAN Culture House, the first of its kind, in Busan on Sept. 1, which attracted ASEAN ambassadors and foreign ministry affairs along with their South Korean counterparts.

The prospects for closer South Korean-ASEAN cooperation appear strong. ASEAN has adopted a tougher stance on North Korea. In early August, the ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting expressed "grave concern" over Pyongyang's missile tests.

But ASEAN is also keeping communications open with Pyongyang, which places the organization in the potential role of mediator between the two Koreas.

This reflects the fact that sustained dialogue and constructive engagement are the kernels of ASEAN's diplomatic philosophy. This explains why the regional body has managed to maintain robust relations with all the competing powers in the Asia-Pacific, including Seoul and Pyongyang.

In search of peace

The ASEAN Regional Forum, the key platform for discussing regional security architecture, has served as a major venue for diplomatic dialogue between Pyongyang and the international community. The collapse of the Six Party Talks, which involved the two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia discussing the denuclearization of North Korea, has given even greater urgency and importance to the ARF as one of the few venues where North Korea can diplomatically engage with the rest of the world.

ASEAN appears to be embracing this unique responsibility with great conviction and confidence. Under the Philippine chair, ASEAN has proactively reached out to Asian actors, including China, Russia and North Korea.

In early August, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano had extensive and broadly constructive discussions with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Manila. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was even more cordial during his meeting with Ri, describing Pyongyang as "a good dialogue partner."

North Korea appears to appreciate ASEAN's overtures and attempts to restore dialogue among disputing parties. In April, during the annual ASEAN summit, North Korea's foreign minister sent Duterte an uncharacteristically emotional letter, beseeching the ASEAN chair to prevent "nuclear holocaust" on the Korean peninsula and produce "a proper proposal" to resolve the crisis. In the following days, Duterte held extensive phone conversations with Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss the crisis.

Admittedly, ASEAN is yet to become a decisive powerbroker in the region. Issues such as the South China Sea territorial disputes have bitterly divided the regional body, which operates on a notoriously slow decision-making process based on consensus.

Yet, as far as the Korean nuclear crisis is concerned, ASEAN seems far from divided. If anything, there is a growing consensus over the necessity to prevent a conflict by facilitating dialogue among the opposing parties. Several ASEAN members, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar, have traditionally had warm ties with Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, the regional body needs to strengthen its institutional capacity to play a more consequential role beyond Southeast Asia. ASEAN has to have the confidence to embrace the role of interlocutor that the circumstances of geopolitics has thrust upon it.

But ASEAN is also in the unique position to help the Moon administration to achieve its vision of a denuclearized and peaceful Korea peninsula by using its contacts on both sides of the divide. If North Korean continues its belligerent behavior, the ASEAN then should be prepared to help implement multilateral sanctions effectively.

In a strange twist, the road to peace on the Korean peninsula could run through Southeast Asia. The time has come for ASEAN to take a more proactive role in solving the Korean crisis in its claimed role as the main engine of regional integration, no matter how improbable that may seem at the moment.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and of the forthcoming "Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy"

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