HONOLULU/TOKYO: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has found itself pulled into the long-running North Korean crisis but as events on the Korean peninsula become a growing threat, experts are mixed on what the 10-member bloc can do.
Last month, Pyongyang appealed to ASEAN for support in a letter which criticised the annual US-South Korean military exercises as pushing the state of affairs on the peninsula to the “brink of war”. A week later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged ASEAN member states to minimise diplomatic relations with North Korea and to fully implement United Nations sanctions amid repeated missile tests by the reclusive state, with the latest having occurred on Sunday (May 14).
All ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea. In particular, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia have embassies in Pyongyang.
Mr Lonny Carlile, associate professor at the University of Hawaii’s Asian Studies Program, thinks that Southeast Asia can help defuse tensions by playing the role of a facilitator for dialogue between North Korea and the international community.
He noted that ASEAN is in "a better position to be a facilitator" given its far distance away from the Korean peninsula and the lack of vested interest. The ASEAN Region Forum (ARF) - the bloc's flagship regional security meeting which involves 27 countries and saw the admission of North Korea in 2000 - could be the platform for ASEAN to do so.
“North Korea has always said that they want to engage in direct negotiations with the United States and feel included in the international community… with ASEAN’s track record in various dialogues, maybe that’s an alternative,” Mr Carlile added.
But there are others who think otherwise.
Mr Denny Roy, a research fellow at Hawaii-based research institute East-West Center, said: “This is a Northeast Asia problem... I don’t know what ASEAN can do to make talks more likely but (it) can help to enforce sanctions."
In particular, those who have trade relations with North Korea, he added. “Other than that, ASEAN by itself has nothing to give, either the Americans or North Korea, to help break this stalemate.
According to Dr Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian political expert at John Cabot University in Rome, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand are among the ASEAN member states with close ties to North Korea.
"Southeast Asia countries are important because they provide economic and security lifeline for North Korea... Trump administration's strategy is to isolate North Korea further. They are capitalizing on concerns about the murder on Malaysian soil," she said, referring to the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, earlier this year. "They can cut ties and exert pressure."
However, she noted that ASEAN’s hands are tied with the lingering tensions over the South China Sea and that the organisation has been “ineffectual and leaderless” with its consensus-based decision making principle.
"It is not working in any meaningful way to resolve security issues... The divisions in ASEAN over the South China Sea connected to China are likely to resonate over NK as well. Expect little," Dr Welsh wrote in an emailed response.
CHINA PLAYS CRUCIAL ROLE BUT WILL SHE ACT?
Some hold the view that China, the sole major ally and economic lifeline of North Korea, continues to play a crucial role.
A high-ranking official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Monday that Japan hopes to “push China to do more responsible actions”.
Speaking to a group of reporters from ASEAN, the official said "now is the time" to put more pressure on North Korea to pursue a dialogue with the international community.
The official added that an upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July as well as a China–Japan–South Korea trilateral summit due later this year could pave the way for more dialogue sessions between the leaders of the Northeast Asian countries, with North Korea likely being the “top priority”.
“We will have more and more dialogue with China on North Korea in the future,” the official told Channel NewsAsia.
But some experts are not convinced that China will eventually wade in. The mainland has been reluctant to upset the status quo in North Korea and risk an influx of refugees from its neighbour.
“China is in a tough place," said Professor Eric Harwit from the University of Hawaii's Asian Studies Program. “They don’t want to see North Korea be destabilised but on the other hand, steps that DPRK is taking may destabilise the whole region… I’m not optimistic that China can do much more than rhetoric against North Korea.”
In addition, the relationship between both countries have been cooling off. Mr Harwit noted that the presidents of both North Korea and China have not met since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
Two weeks ago, North Korea's state media also published a rare criticism of China, saying Chinese state media commentaries calling for tougher sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear program were undermining relations with Beijing and worsening tensions.
“This is a rare instance of North Korea’s official media expressing unhappiness with China and maybe shows that North Korea is trying to rebalance their relationship,” said Mr Harwit.
For Mr Roy, this depicts a "clear deterioration" in the bilateral relationship between China and North Korea over the last few years as the latter accelerated its nuclear and missile programmes despite Beijing's objections.
The expert, whose research focuses on North Korea and its nuclear weapons, expects the rogue state to launch another missile which will “damage the relationship further”.
“Sanctions have not worked so far but there are other kinds of sanctions (that are) much more painful and comprehensive that might have a chance of working, particularly if China goes along with it,” Mr Roy said.
“But as we know, the Chinese have strong reservations about pushing North Korea too hard and are willing to live with the nuclear program to avoid a collapse of the regime.”