The paper discusses the impact and implications of the ASEAN (Association of South Eastern Asian Nations) in a potential Korean unification. A potential unification of Korea as well as a single transformation process in North Korea are associated to the question of economic integration in Northeast Asia The issue of the Korean unification has inter-Korean, and international dimensions.
Relations between both Koreas are defined as special and unstable. These relations are affected by internal and external factors. The South Korean government has made a lot of efforts in order to build the basis for a peaceful unification on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, an international cooperation is requested. Taking in account the German unification in 1990s, this one was possible due to interactions among different powers. Therefore, the Korean unification cannot be realized through a state-centric approach but rather through a multilateral policy. As South Korea is belonging to the ASEAN+3 Initiative, the Korean unification is attracting the attention of ASEAN members due also to it strategic position in North East Asia. On the other side it may be difficult as there are serious conflicts of interest among these potential partners belonging to the ASEAN and out of the ASEAN (the U.S and Russia). The aim of the paper is to discuss the role of the ASEAN regional integration as a critical component of the solution to the Korean unification.
The Korean Peninsula is divided for already nearly seven decades since the end of the Second World War in 1945. During the Cold War era, there was little the Asian countries could do for unification of both Koreas. Entering a post-Cold War period, ASEAN is trying to be involved in Initiatives for Peaceful Unification of Korean Peninsula. ASEAN leaders consider that bringing to the Korean Unification may have a concluding impact over the North Korean nuclear program (Weapons of Mass Destruction and proliferation concerns) and a positive impact on the economy of this region. The aims of the ASEAN in its implication in the Korean Peninsula matters are multiples. The first one would be the prevention of inter-Korean conflicts. The second one is the critical North Asian security. The third one an economic bonanza to the region.
The importance and the context of the problems: the policy of Neighboring Powers
North Korea represents a double challenge which is compounded of traditional (Weapons of Mass Destruction, biochemical weapons, nuclear arsenal and military provocations) and non-traditional challenges (global economic and social crisis, and a larger inflow of refugees). North Korea is insisting on the fact that the possession of nuclear weapons contributes to economic development and self-reliance. North Korea posed a security threat to the region and the Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. are frustrated with North Korea’s behavior and are not interested in negotiating with it. North Korea is however no more a primary concern as any North Korea’s change is unlikely. The U.S. considers that it’s impossible that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons.
For China, North Korea is becoming a liability rather than an asset. There has been no exchange of high rank officials between North Korean and China since Kim Jong-un took office three years ago. The Chinese investments in North Korea are also under pressure (there are no Chinese state companies which are investing in North Korea). Meanwhile China doesn’t want any collapse of North Korea.
Regarding Japan, this country is trying to solve the Japanese abductees issue and pursue collective security related to North Korean contingency. Japan is also considering the North Korean nuclear issue as a priority.
Meanwhile Russia wants to “Return in Asia” through the Putin’s grand plan for this continent. We can also presume that Russia is trying to utilize North Korea as a bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S. and gaining economic benefit.
Finally concerning both Koreas relations, these states do not maintain relations which aim at the Korean unification (in spite of the official discourse). They do not officially consider themselves as sovereign states nevertheless their relations are similar to these ones.
All these elements should be taken in account in order to set up the global framework of understanding North Korea.
Relations between North Korea and ASEAN countries
In spite of the 630 inter-Korean dialogues, including two summit talks and 10 prime minister level-talks held since 1971, no Korean solution were found to the Korean division. Therefore, the internationalization of the problem is requested. The closer international organization to Koreas is the ASEAN. First, ASEAN was prefigured by an organization called the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), a group consisting of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand that was formed in 1961. ASEAN itself was inaugurated on 8 August 1967, when foreign ministers of five countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, signed the ASEAN Declaration, more commonly known as the Bangkok Declaration. The creation of ASEAN was motivated by a common fear of communism and a thirst for economic development. In 1989, Korea became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner with ASEAN. The ASEAN Plus Three Forum (including China, Japan and South Korea) was inaugurated in 1993. During the last 22 years Korea and the ASEAN have written an invaluable history.
Due to the inclusion of South Korea, the issue of Korean unification started to be enlighted. Since 2010, North Korean foreign ministers have attended the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) summits, allowing the DPRK to engage in direct bilateral talks with both ASEAN member states and seventeen other ARF participating countries. Since 2011, North Korean officials (such as Ri Chol, Ri Kwang-gun, Ri Myong-san, and Ri Ryong-nam) have increasingly visited ASEAN member countries, namely Vietnam and Singapore, for the purpose of learning from—and perhaps emulating—these countries’ experiences with economic development.
ASEAN and the Korean unification
The ASEAN is an important partner of South Korea. It’s the second largest trading partner of South Korea, the third biggest investment destination for Korea, and an important region for the diffusion of the Korean (hallyu) culture. Korean authorities try also to export their „Miracle on the Han River” by envisioning a „Miracle on the ASEAN rivers”. Therefore, we can denote a real fusion relation between the ASEAN and South Korea. Yet another aspect is North Korea’s attitude towards the ASEAN countries after the emergence of Kim Jong-eun. North Korean official statements refer to possible attack toward Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. As the new North Korean leadership is more irrational than the previous one and for geographical reasons, the ASEAN countries are also interested in the stability of the region. Therefore, some steps towards negotiating with North Korea have been taken. The ASEAN is globally supporting the Korean unification for security and economic purposes. However, it is not certain that the ASEAN will strongly support an early unification of the Korean Peninsula. The ASEAN may agree to a low unification because it will be important to make the alliance Koreas-ASEAN solid and balancing against the rise of the USA and Russia. Therefore, it may weaken the U.S. strategic interest. As China is belonging to ASEAN+3, and as the U.S. is slowly declining compared to the rise of China, the U.S. would prefer a limited cooperation between a new Korea and the ASEAN. Regarding Japan (also belonging to ASEAN+3), if a unified Korea may appear, it may be a kind of new rival against Japan given the historical relations between both countries. Nevertheless, the Korean unification will strengthen the Asian community and may reduce the influence of non Asian countries in this part of the world. On the other side, the U.S. Try to increase their long-term presence on the Korean Peninsula through the installations of long-terms elements which are hard to be dismantled. For instance, the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) which was supposedly aimed at defend South Korea toward a potential North Korean attack. China does consider that the THAAD system may jeopardize its hegemony Asia. In reality it’s an element of the long-term presence of the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula, even if the unification would take place. Therefore, as said the French researcher Arnaud Leveau, major powers such as the U.S. which are competing for gaining influence in the ASEAN region can disturb any actions of the ASEAN over a potential Korean unification. Then it may have some disastrous consequences for the security of North East Asia.
Separate countries of the ASEAN are negotiating with North Korea. Indonesia is conducting a smart and soft policy, however its’ engagement on unification issues is more than limited. By the way some ASEAN countries still focus on other Korean issues than the unification. For instance, Japan would like to get answers from the North Korean government for problems such as abductees or North Korea’s nuclear issues. For Tokyo it should be the top priority on the Korean Peninsula. Some other countries (for example Indonesia and Singapore) think that the attention should be paid simultaneously to the change in, and stability of, North Korea’s political system instead of the Korean unification. These divergent of interests were already seen with the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) signed in 1954. This organization had no political forces. This structure was less multi-lateral than the current ASEAN. Institutionalization efforts of relationship are essential to make progress in Korean relations and to shift from conflict to cooperation. Being implicated in a set of norms and rules (of the ASEAN), actors has common expectations. That’s why the participation of North Korea to ASEAN meeting (as an observatory candidate) may be also a first step for the reconciliation of both Koreas. The Korean unification and ASEAN+3 membership of South Korea mean becoming part of a harmonization cartel for North Korea. At a first glance this included a lot of advantages for the transformation process of the less advanced North Korea. No search for reform strategies would be necessary. A set of norms of the transformation path would be given by the South Korean as well the APEC regulations. All South Korean formal institutions as well as the whole ASEAN “acquis communautaire” would be directly transferred to North Korea. South Korean authorities may also expect a financial support from ASEAN countries. Costs of unification had been evaluated to billions of dollars. As South Korea is concentrating 30 percent of its total official development assistance in the ASEAN region, Seoul may expect a reciprocal support even to a less extent.
South Korea is also trying to coordinate a multilateral initiative which also aims at the Korean unification. The South Korean president Park Gyun-hee is pursuing a Hanbando Shinroe (Korean peninsula trust-building process) which may be surrounded by ASEAN partners. Furthermore, The Park administration is dominating the “Dongbuka Pyonghwa Gusang” initiative (Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI)) as a trust-building process around the region launched an initiative to discuss regional security issues. Basically, North Korea can participate in the NAPCI at any stage. Nevertheless, what value is added by another multilateral mechanism in Asia? Given the existence of a set of overlapping, inclusive institutions centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—including an annual East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum—what extra benefit would be derived from NAPCI? The NAPCI is then more a competitor to ASEAN regarding involvement in the Korean unification.
Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy of Engagement, Ro Mu-hyun’s unreserved approach to North Korea and Lee Myung-bak’s response to the North Korea’s nuclear provocations failed to induce changes in North Korea. Therefore South Korea is not able to face alone with the issue of North Korea. For a long time South Korea carry out the cooperation with North Korea however it may be prosecuted through an international network. Due to factors mentioned below such as the deteriorating relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, ASEAN may be North Korea’s best chance to bring itself out of isolation. ASEAN remains a central player because there is no other alternative for South Korea in spite of the unification case of Germany which is culturally too far from the Korean Peninsula. ASEAN should apply a balanced policy between incentives and sanctions by highlighting a three steps policy (Step one: humanitarian aid, step 2: stabilization by economic exchanges, step 3: normalization through the integration in international organizations) through a combination of agendas. Meanwhile North Korea and South Korea could benefit from the great relationship some ASEAN countries share with both countries. If the Korean unification will be realized, we will be able to close the chapter of the Cold War by removing an important source of tension. It will also enable a new configuration of the Northern Part of Asia.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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