The policy options available for dealing with North Korea may be unchanged, but they must be universally implemented to have a chance of working. Matthew Cottee argues that ASEAN states need to do more, particularly on implementing UN sanctions against the regime.

ASEAN flags. Credit: Flickr/Prachatal

Observers of events on the Korean Peninsula can be forgiven for an overwhelming sense of déjà vu:  another week, another North Korean missile test. Unfortunately, the options available to policymakers are similarly repetitive.

With its ever-increasing number of missile tests, North Korea has sought to both develop its indigenous technological capability while driving wedges between its neighbours. For example, Pyongyang’s behaviour has prompted the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, which in turn has caused Chinese anger towards Seoul. Deployment of the same missile defence system also appears to be straining United States­–ROK relations. Furthermore, this week’s missile test looks to have targeted a particular stretch of water disputed by Japan and South Korea, presumably looking to destabilise regional unity further.

Over the past 12 months, in addition to the numerous missile tests, Pyongyang has also tested a nuclear device, further demonstrated its asymmetric cyber capabilities and continued to evade multilateral sanctions. This unchecked development is explored in greater detail in the 2017 Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment, launched this week at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

The focus at the dialogue will be on China and the United States’ attempts to resolve the situation on the Korean Peninsula, but the forum in Singapore also provides an opportunity to assess regional efforts. ASEAN’s twin-pronged approach of punishment and engagement is rarely mentioned. Although this is perhaps the way member states would prefer it, Washington has recognised the need to engage regional partners more persuasively as the situation continues to worsen.

The US clearly believes that ASEAN members could be doing more, as evidenced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments when hosting ministers in Washington early in May. He suggested states consider cutting diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and warned of secondary sanctions aimed at firms found to be dealing with North Korea.

Although visa-waiver programmes for North Korean nationals have been scaled back, ASEAN members still host numerous North Korean embassies, reflecting the importance placed on maintaining diplomatic engagement as opposed to isolating Pyongyang further. This is problematic, since embassies and trade offices also frequently serve as nodes in North Korea’s elaborate illicit network of procurement and exports. Recent reports indicate that North Korean companies have been selling their wares through other states in the region. Fears have also been raised about North Korean nationals exploiting the limited oversight and developed IT infrastructure in ASEAN countries to conduct cyber operations.

These reports may explain, in part, why US President Donald Trump has personally sought to engage the Philippines and Thailand – two of North Korea’s top-five trading partners – with invitations to President Rodrigo Duterte and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to visit the White House. With little prospect of engagement or dialogue with North Korea, the US is seeking to tighten loopholes, improve regional sanctions implementation and ultimately increase pressure.

Although ASEAN states are wary of punitive measures and excessive pressure, there are several non-controversial areas in which they could focus efforts, namely on the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions. In particular, enhanced vigilance towards North Korean diplomats, officials and their related finances should remain a key emphasis for states in the region. The need to ensure domestic legislation is in place to prosecute those guilty of evading UN sanctions is also prescient. The Singaporean prosecution of a firm involved in the case of the Chong Chon Gang – a North Korean vessel containing banned military hardware indicted en route to Cuba by Panamanian authorities – was successfully appealed and overturned, setting back counter-proliferation efforts.

Engagement remains important in resolving the North Korean situation, but requires reciprocity. At this stage, there are no signs that Kim Jong-un is interested in dialogue, hence the emphasis on punitive measures. Even South Korean President Moon Jae-in, elected with a mandate to establish a channel of communication with Pyongyang, has admitted that the timing is not right to seriously consider dialogue, opting instead to build pressure to force Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.

For ASEAN members, which have largely avoided proactive involvement, finding the correct balance between punishment and engagement will remain challenging. Following the murder of Kim Jong-nam on Malaysian soil, however, it has become harder for the region to ignore the situation. There is a growing recognition that if tensions continue to escalate, the risk of destabilisation also increases, which is not in the interest of ASEAN members. The policies available are not new, but they require universal implementation to have a chance of working.


This post is part of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Voices blog. It will provide a lively mix of news and views from the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, taking place in Singapore from 2–4 June.

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