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A new ASEAN approach to the Korean Peninsula?

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In Brief

The chairman’s statement at the ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan last month once again ‘stressed the need to maintain peace, security and stability in the Korean Peninsula’.


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This included a call to encourage ‘peaceful dialogue including creating a positive atmosphere for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks’, and a reiteration of ‘the importance of fully complying with obligations in all relevant UNSC Resolutions and commitments under the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks… [and] support for all efforts to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner’. The ASEAN chairman’s statement at the East Asia Summit, the day after in the same city, said much the same thing, with the addition of trust-building and ‘humanitarian concerns’.

These are similar to previous ASEAN statements on the Korean Peninsula. But such statements have failed to make any significant contribution toward cooling tensions.

Each year the ASEAN chair, which is rotated among the ten members states on an annual basis, has the responsibility of producing the first draft of the chairman’s statement. Subsequently, negotiations are conducted among all the ASEAN member states. Usually this is done on the basis of the previous year’s statements and thus often ends up being almost identical year in year out, unless some new and significant developments have unfolded, such as the sinking in March 2010 of the South Korean naval vessel, ROKS Cheonan.

The result of this process is unsurprising given the necessary compromises involved in all negotiation. Avoiding any new, deep or realistic analysis requires less negotiating time and effort, both of which are invariably in short supply in the run-up to the summits and the annual mid-year meetings of foreign ministers. Moreover, bilateral relations with major powers and their interests in ‘sensitive’ subjects always have to be taken into account.

In order to truly promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula we need to place ourselves in the shoes of Pyongyang’s leaders and look at the disputes from their viewpoint. The international media and many academic commentators tend to see the North Korean ‘problem’ with purely external eyes focusing almost exclusively on nuclear non-proliferation. It is assumed that the ball is in Pyongyang’s court and the ‘problem’ can only be solved if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons stockpile and production capacity.

But this line of thinking fails to duly consider the dynamic of the relationships between North Korea on the one hand and the US, South Korea and Japan on the other. For North Korean decision-makers their main, and perhaps only, concern is their own political, if not physical, survival. Their other likely concern is the survival and welfare of their families and friends after they are gone. (This is true in many other parts of the world.) Thus, what they fear most is regime change. And almost every day they hear threats of and demands for, explicitly or in effect, regime change from countries that are militarily stronger than North Korea.

As a result, North Korea may perceive nuclear weapons as its only effective defence and means of survival. Thus rather than focusing solely on nuclear weapons, in order to improve the prospects of a deal the international community might do better by finding ways to begin to build trust with North Korea and offering effective and credible guarantees against regime change.

A new approach towards North Korea is clearly called for and could contribute immensely to peace and stability in the region. Given ASEAN claims to ‘centrality’ in the regional architecture and its potential to provide a fresh perspective as a player external to the Six-Party Talks, ASEAN is well placed to take the lead in calling for such a new approach. But to this end ASEAN must engage in deeper, more realistic analyses of its own and individual member-states’ interests and of the situations on which those interests compel it to agree and state ASEAN positions.

Rodolfo C. Severino, a former ASEAN Secretary-General, is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed here are solely his own.

3 responses to “A new ASEAN approach to the Korean Peninsula?”

  1. One may be forgiven fo thinking that Rodolfo Severino is an apologist for the outrageous behavior of North Korea. North Korea sunk the Cheonan killing 46 and 8 months later shelled the island of Yeonpyeong killing 4. North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to defend itself, it has a 1.2 million man army along with chemical and biological weapons. No western leader has called for regime change in North Korea in the last twenty years. Mr Severino claim that these calls come every day has no basis in truth. North Korea is a completely amoral fascist society run for the benefit of a select minority, and the only hope for the people of the North will come when the government falls.

    • The use of the words apologist, outrageous, amoral, fascist, and select minority may belong to the world of ideology; but they are best avoided in the real world of international negotiations. The point of my article is to call on ASEAN to contribute to progress in the negotiations with North Korea by seeking to consider the situation of the decision-makers in that country. I am not as sure as Mr. O’Connell if the DPRK’s conventional forces, even if augmented by “chemical and biological weapons”, but without nuclear arms, can prevail against attempts (okay, maybe “every day” is an over-statement)at regime change, which is the main pre-occupation of many national leaders.

      • Those words are the truth, if you don’t think so, show me where I am wrong. So you think North Korea is not an amoral fascist country than how do you account for millions of dead North Koreans, gulags and starvation. Name the national leaders that are trying to bring about regime change and site some facts that can be checked.

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