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"How ASEAN Supports the Korean Peninsula Peace Process" by Tang Siew Mun

2018/73, 14 June 2018

The historic meeting between US President, Donald Trump, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) State Affairs Commission Chairman, Mr Kim Jong Un, in Singapore on 12 June 2018, was the first ever between a sitting US President and a DPRK leader. The meeting produced a joint statement, which was described by President Trump as “very comprehensive.” However, expectations for the 464-word joint statement to pave the way for the “building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” must be tempered given the complexity of the issues involved.

Nevertheless, the exuberance and goodwill from the Summit has already resulted in one tangible diplomatic payoff, with Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement on the eve of Summit that Malaysia will reopen its embassy in Pyongyang.  Recall that the Malaysian Embassy had been left “unstaffed” since April 2017 in retaliation of DPRK’s alleged role in the assassination of Mr Kim Jong Nam – Chairman Kim’s elder brother – at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 13 February 2017. The resumption of full diplomatic ties between Malaysia and DPRK signals Malaysia’s willingness to put the “Kim Jong Nam episode” behind.

Although ASEAN had consistently stood with the United Nations against DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, it also kept the channel of communication and dialogue with Pyongyang open through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which DPRK joined in 2000. Pyongyang’s participation in the ARF is even more important in the wake of the Trump-Kim Summit as it seeks to normalise ties with the region.  At this moment, only five ASEAN member states – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam – have diplomatic missions in Pyongyang.  

ASEAN’s role in the peace process is to provide a conducive environment for discussions and to support DPRK’s re-integration into international community. This process is contingent on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) lifting its sanctions on DPRK. Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore suspended trade with DPRK in 2017.  The resumption of trade would allow for other forms of bilateral engagement such as cultural, educational and tourism to follow suit.

Although ASEAN member states’ trade with DPRK is small in comparison to other regional parties, the impact of this relationship for DPRK is significant in helping Pyongyang to earn hard currency to pay for its imports. In addition, ASEAN member states – notably Malaysia – are an important destination for North Korean overseas workers, another important source of hard currency for DPRK.

The broadening of DPRK’s engagement with ASEAN member states will give Pyongyang a higher stake in the maintenance of regional peace and stability. Hopefully, these incentives, in conjunction with the bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagements, will convince DPRK to stay the course in the peace process.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.