BEIJING – In the year that has passed since the historic first U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit in Singapore, ASEAN countries have become unwilling to get tough on the hermit state, with some eyeing economic benefits from Pyongyang in the future.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been trying to improve ties with North Korea as the risk of Pyongyang engaging in a military conflict with Washington declines, giving a boost to regional stability.
A few companies in ASEAN are paying closer attention to North Korea’s economic potential and are exporting goods there to deepen ties, even though that would constitute a violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.
At their summit in Singapore on June 12 last year, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed that Washington would provide security guarantees to Pyongyang in return for “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
But the two leaders fell short of a deal at their second summit in Hanoi from Feb. 27 to 28. The wide gap between Washington’s insistence on denuclearization and Pyongyang’s demand for sanctions relief proved insurmountable.
With the denuclearization talks at a standstill for now, North Korea has resumed provocative actions against the United States, such as by firing what appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles in early May.
Nevertheless, Trump, who some analysts say is eager to tout diplomatic results during his re-election campaign next year, continues to take a conciliatory approach toward North Korea, voicing hope to continue negotiations with Kim.
Pyongyang also seems reluctant to break off talks with Washington to achieve its ultimate goals of obtaining security guarantees from the United States and revitalizing its stagnant economy.
“After Trump and Kim met in Singapore, they have said that their personal relations remain good. We don’t expect that military tensions between the United States and North Korea will grow,” an ASEAN diplomat in Beijing said.
“North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons are not a threat to us. What we are concerned about is whether a U.S.-North Korea clash would threaten security in our region,” the diplomat said.
“If the possibility is remote, there is no reason for us to take a hard-line approach that would hurt relations with North Korea. ASEAN member states are seeking stable and neutral ties with the two Koreas.”
Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, echoed this view.
“ASEAN member states believe it is important to remain neutral in their respective foreign policies,” Ho said.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. All 10 have diplomatic ties with the North.
North Korea’s relations with Indonesia and Vietnam sharply worsened in the wake of the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the leader’s estranged half-brother, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, 2017.
Two women from Indonesia and Vietnam were charged with killing Kim Jong Nam by smearing the deadly nerve agent VX on his face. They were released earlier this year.
Since the case has “more or less been resolved,” Pyongyang’s ties with Jakarta and Hanoi “appear to be back to normal,” said Ho, an expert on the Korean Peninsula at the Singapore-based think tank.
Malaysia’s relations with North Korea also deteriorated following the apparent assassination. Kuala Lumpur expelled the North’s ambassador, bringing down the curtain on over 40 years of cozy ties.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, recently said he is ready to mend ties with Pyongyang.
Amid a thaw in ties, “Some businesspeople from various ASEAN member states are interested to explore business opportunities in the DPRK,” Ho said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“At the moment, not much business can be done due to the sanctions,” Ho said, but ASEAN sources said there are enterprises in Southeast Asia that have exported goods to North Korea in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“While we are making every effort to crack down on transactions against the resolutions, unfortunately we cannot say that no company in the ASEAN region is involved in business with North Korea,” one of the sources said.
Citing a U.N. Panel of Exports report, the source also said that Singapore-based company T Specialist International and its partner firm, OCN, have been accused of exporting luxury goods to North Korea in the past few years.
Japan, which is seriously worried about the North’s nuclear and missile blackmail, has pursued the full implementation of international economic sanctions to force Pyongyang to discard its weapons of mass destruction.
“We should cooperate with ASEAN countries to address North Korea,” a Japanese government official said.