Trump-Kim meet a gift for Southeast Asia

Trump-Kim meet a gift for Southeast Asia

US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sentosa Island in Singapore in this June 12 photo. AP
US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sentosa Island in Singapore in this June 12 photo. AP

All the hullabaloo surrounding the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore must be discarded if one wants to seriously assess the overall ripple effects, in particular, the four-point statement. For the region, at least for now, the tight knot of a nuclear war has been untied. After all, President Donald Trump gave his personal assurance of this after he returned to the United States from his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. That is good for Southeast Asia as a whole. If there is a war, the region's progress would be badly undermined as much as, if not more, than those of the two protagonists. The US provides a marketplace and the Korean Peninsula remains the last stronghold of long-awaited peace and stability.

The summit has given rise to many prospects and challenges. Similar to former president Richard Nixon's journey to China in 1972 ahead of the US diplomatic link-up with China, the Singapore summit will have the same result in terms of opening the floodgates for new relations and diplomatic adjustments with the hermit kingdom. From now on, Asean will increase engagements with Pyongyang, taking its cue from the recent summit's outcome and South Korea's new attitude toward the North.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Singapore, the current Asean chair, has already become the grouping's key driving force after the successful summit to recalibrate ties with Pyongyang. Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong's private meeting with Mr Kim, including the city-tour conducted by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrisnan, will also provide a new parameter for future Asean-North Korea relations.

A clearer picture will emerge at the end of July when Asean foreign ministers hold their 51st annual meeting. It remains to be seen how North Korea will reinvent itself at the 25th Regional Forum (ARF) meeting. In addition, foreign ministers from the 18-member East Asia Summit will also meet to evaluate the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea's relationship with Southeast Asian countries goes back more than six decades but they are diverse and uneven. Thailand and the Philippines joined the UN forces during the 1950-53 Korean War and both countries still have their miniature flags at the Peace Village in Panmunjom near the inter-Korean border. Pyongyang has constantly demanded the two governments withdraw those flags.

Before the establishment of Asean, Indonesia's ties with North Korea were so good due to the personal ties between Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong-un's grandfather) and former president Sukarno back in the Bandung days. Indonesia hosted the international conference to consolidate newly decolonised countries from Asia and Africa in 1955. As one of the emerging leaders of those newly decolonised countries, then-prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia managed to establish a lasting friendship with the elder Kim, which later transformed into extraordinary ties between his country and North Korea that continue today.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the Cold War in 1990, the Korean Peninsula became the region's major hot spot. In 1994, when the idea to set up a region-wide security forum, the ARF, was broached, North Korea's nuclearisation had already occupied the top of the list of conflicting sources in Asia. Indeed, with the settlement of the Cambodian conflict, the Korean Peninsula crisis has been discussed in every ARF annual meeting since 1995.

It was an open secret that the Asean members wanted to play a direct role by inviting North Korea to take part in the Asean-led security forum. But the non-Asean ARF members, especially the US, Japan and South Korea, strongly opposed the idea. Subsequently, China's proposal to organise a separate platform to discuss this issue led to the formulation of the six-party talks (SPT) a year later. Asean is not a part of the SPT, even though all SPT members are in the ARF.

Since then, Asean has been searching for an appropriate role, even a narrow one, beyond just providing the venue for the discussion. When Thailand chaired Asean in 2000, then-foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan managed to convince Pyongyang to join the ARF. But its record of ARF attendance was not impressive due to a lack of mutual trust and flexibility. Then in 2008 Pyongyang signed the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation in 2008, raising its level of engagement with Asean amid growing Western pressure. For the past decade, the pathway of Asean-North Korean relations has been very much under the joint pressure of Japan, South Korea and the US.

Asean with Pyongyang plummeted to an all-time low following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader's half brother in Kuala Lumpur earlier last year. Malaysia, which used to enjoy an intimate relationship with North Korea, immediately downgraded their diplomatic ties and revoked the visa-free status. Vietnam also pushed back its ties with Pyongyang when one of the alleged women assassins was found to be Vietnamese.

A few weeks before the historic June 12 summit, the US, Japan and South Korea continued to urge Asean members to isolate North Korea, reduce its accepted diplomatic representatives and cut trade ties. During the height of the North's missile tests last year, Washington asked Asean to expel Pyongyang from the ARF. The grouping did not comply with the US request as it still advocates dialogue and diplomacy as the most effective means.

Now expectations are high it will be sooner rather than later that North Korea will take advantage of its diplomatic triumph within a regional context. Obviously, to improve the country's economic development and performance, Asean will be front and centre to render extra hands of multifaceted cooperation. Asean has integrated the highly centralised economies of new Asean members such as Vietnam and Laos in the past two decades.

Helping North Korea to prepare for broader economic engagement and other areas of capacity-building and human development would not be difficult. Asean can even consider according certain roles or links to Pyongyang in political, economic and cultural areas within Asean-led frameworks.

But before Asean and North Korea move up the ladder of cooperation, Pyongyang must show a positive attitude toward the grouping's no-nuke treaty despite the ongoing issue it has regarding its status as a nuclear power. Asean is awaiting all major nuclear powers to accede to the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty of 1995. The Trump-Kim summit only focused on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Countries in the region, including Japan, are also interested in eliminating the North's Taepodong medium-range missiles, which could reach all Asean capitals.

If Pyongyang's denuclearisation pledge is genuine, as Mr Trump believes, Asean will go the extra mile to help integrate its economy with that of the rest of the Indo-Pacific region. It can quickly transform the North's backward economy into a modern one.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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