With a steady and undeniable increase in the frequency of missile-testing by the North Korean regime, 2017 has been ballistic in more than one sense of the word. More problematic than its quantity, the quality (i.e. success rates) of such tests has risen considerably. Of greatest concern is that the regime has purportedly succeeded in launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), projected to be capable of striking Western American territories such as Guam. Even more recently, North Korea launched a barrage of missiles during an annual military exercise between the US and South Korea. The threat of conflict breaking out in the Northeast Asian region is thus very real.
Increasingly, the US and China have called upon North Korea to refrain from demonstrating hostilities. However, considering the proximity of such an unstable region to the ASEAN community, the ten Member States should also determine how they can contribute to the de-escalation of tensions. Indeed, ASEAN may be uniquely poised to address this issue.
There are several reasons why ASEAN should be concerned by the volatile situation in North Korea. One is that of self-preservation: should they be able to launch nuclear warheads across the Pacific Ocean, North Korea could easily target the ASEAN states as well, thereby posing a fundamental existential threat. ASEAN should also be concerned that the eruption of conflict in Northeast Asia would produce an economic crisis in the region, affecting the economies of major trading partners such as China, Japan and South Korea (who form the ASEAN +3). Notably, the combined trade volume between ASEAN and the three countries account for approximately 30% of ASEAN’s total trade; the effects of a crash in any of their economies would be strongly felt in ASEAN.
More importantly, however, the North Korean situation poses a strategic challenge to ASEAN. With the development of the ICBMs, the deterrence generated by the presence of nuclear-armed American forces is no longer adequate to guarantee the safety of South Korea and Japan. Projections of assured nuclear destruction of North Korea should they move against the two US allies may hold less weight now that the North Koreans claim to be capable of striking the US first.
This uncertainty may therefore pressure Japan and South Korea into building similar capabilities of their own and decrease their dependence on, and potentially engagement with, the US. Such developments might amount to a diminished American presence in Asia, shaking the balance of power between the US and China. Should China become dominant with no counter-balance in the region, Member States may then face greater pressure to align themselves with Chinese strategic policies, even if they are at odds with their independent national interests.
In this case, what approach might ASEAN then take to address the North Korean issue? As an organization defined by its policy of non-interference – that is, the prohibition of intervention in the internal affairs of Member States – ASEAN is unlikely to undertake hard-handed solutions such as the “preventive war” frequently mentioned of late by the White House (i.e. pre-emptive strikes to annihilate the North Korean regime). What may be constructive, however, is ASEAN’s primary modus operandi: dialogue. Indeed, this is ASEAN’s strength – congregations encouraging frank discussions (e.g. the Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting) have proven effective and arguably ensured peace in a region that had been riddled with tensions only decades earlier.
As mild as such an approach may sound, this may be what the North Korean regime is most receptive to. After all, while Kim Jong-un may appear to be a haphazard dictator, a desperate need to ensure the survival of the regime underpins the psyche of the North Korean leadership. Jabs to the eye like the imposition of sanctions or threats of hot war thus fail to address this primal need; the creation of a platform for dialogue, on the other hand, may allow for concessions to be made. Tellingly, North Korea had reached out to ASEAN as recent as April this year to counter US policies (albeit to no avail, as ASEAN characteristically underscored the need to preserve peace and exercise restraint). The consensus-driven ASEAN may thus be key to unlocking this particular clashing of horns.
Danyon is currently reading Psychology at University College London; nevertheless, he has a keen interest in geopolitics, economics and international relations. An idealist, he believes that institutions enable the building of a brighter future for peoples of the world and places cautious hope in the world organisations of today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.