The peace process in the Korean Peninsula, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) being one of the most significant stakeholders, continues to remain one of the main challenges when it comes to the on-going peace processes in Asia and the world. It is for these reasons that DPRK’s position on the matter keeps remaining a focal point of interest in 2022. Among the analyses conducted, the reaction and positions undertaken by the main structures in the ASEAN regional architecture figure highly. In fact, the 29th meeting held in Cambodia of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – as one of the most important security dialogue platforms in the Indo-Pacific – attached a great importance to the “recent surge in the DPRK’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing”, showcasing its “concern” in the Chairman’s Statement. This move, in a very serious analysis of ARF, “reflects an increased tension on the Korean Peninsula and threatens peace and stability in the region and in the world”. In the Chairman’s statement it is further mentioned that “The Meeting called on the DPRK to fully comply with all relevant UNSC resolutions, and refrain from conducting further nuclear and missile tests. The Meeting also urged for utmost restraint and refraining from all actions that would hinder the resumption of a meaningful dialogue, and stressed the importance of sustained and peaceful talks among all concerned parties in order to realise lasting peace and stability in a denuclearised Korean Peninsula. The Meeting reiterated support for the international efforts to bring about the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, including through utilising ASEAN-led platforms such as the ARF in promoting a conducive atmosphere for peaceful dialogue amongst the concerned parties.”
DPRK was represented at the forum by its Ambassador to Indonesia An Kwang Il, who – according to DPRK state media – spoke briefly with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on the sidelines of the forum. In this regard, the representation of DPRK at the level of a Special Envoy at ARF may be interpreted as an expression of the country’s continuous will to maintain open the dialogue process with ASEAN and the ASEAN dialogue partners, Republic of Korea (RoK) included.
At the same time, the ballistic tests carried out by Pyongyang at the beginning of 2022 and the tightening of its official dialectic seem to express the country's attempt to attract the attention of the international community and to maintain a central role in the dynamics of Northeast Asia in an increasingly turbulent global context.
The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in March 2022 marked the end of the moratorium that Pyongyang had announced in 2018, at the height of the opening phase for diplomatic talks with the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un formalized the change of pace several days prior to the launch, publicly anticipating a further expansion of the national missile program with the introduction of "new attack systems".
The most recent, July 29, 2022, speech of the DPRK’s leader on the occasion of the anniversary of the “Fatherland Liberation War” seems to deliver a rather puzzling message: “we should be ready both for talks and confrontation and more fully for confrontation in particular in order to reliably guarantee the security of our state”, possibly anticipating – as it did at the beginning of 2022 – a new ICBM launch or a nuclear test: “our Party Central Committee has recently decided on the tasks related to the strategy for developing the national self-defence capabilities, and is leading the effort for their accurate implementation.”
It is no coincidence that only four days after Chairman Kim's speech, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, alerted his government and its allies about the possibility that the northern authorities would launch the country's first nuclear test since 2017: “The DPRK continue to expand its unlawful nuclear program and continues its ongoing provocations against the region. As we gather today, Pyongyang is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test.” It is not unlikely that the US warning came as a reaction to DPRK leader having directly accused the United States that “in pursuit of military confrontation with us, persists in spreading groundless rumours of “threat” from us”, while <<instigating the south Korean authorities to suicidal anti-DPRK confrontation on the pretext of solidifying “alliance”.>>
RoK’s reaction to the DPRK’s leader’s speech has been the announcement of the Republic of Korea and the United States of America to commence their largest joint military drills in years, on August 22, 2022. The exercises aim “to tighten readiness over North Korea's potential weapons tests”. The military drills, named “Ulchi Freedom Shield” are scheduled to end on September 1, 2022. In a trenchant note, the South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May 2022, vowed to “normalize the joint military exercises with the United States and enhance the allies' extended deterrence against North Korea's nuclear threats.”
Until then – among multiple uncertainties related to DPRK’s military advancements and their display of Pyongyang’s foreign policy dynamics – ARF remains one of the most significant venues of dialogue between DPRK and the other relevant stakeholders in the Korean Peninsula.
The peace process in the Korean Peninsula, in parallel with ASEAN high-level meetings, has consistently figured on the ARF agenda and its official statements since its creation after the end of the Cold War, during the first North Korean nuclear crisis of 1993-1994. One could infer that, in ARF’s view, isolating Pyongyang would increase tensions and would not provide any solutions. Instead, engaging DPRK would ensure the Korean Peninsula peace process will remain a focal matter of the ARF, alongside other ASEAN forums, supported by “ASEAN Centrality” in the Indo-Pacific concept, in accordance with the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.
So far, the results of the ARF in the Korean Peninsula peace process have been substantial. The Foreign Ministers of DPRK and RoK met for the first time since the Korean War at the ASEAN-led forum in 2000. The first bilateral ministerial meeting between DPRK and the US also took place in 2000, when the then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met the late DPRK Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun. Following their meeting on the sidelines of the ARF, Albright visited Pyongyang and met the former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il only three months later. In the light of its historical achievements, the ARF’s capital importance in continuing the peace process in the Korean Peninsula cannot be denied.
While having been previously represented at ARF by its Foreign Minister, DPRK has recently sent a Special Envoy, usually the DPRK Ambassador to Indonesia and ASEAN. At the time one may find difficult to ascertain the reasons for Pyongyang’s resorting – at least temporarily – to another level of representation at ARF, yet its continuous participation at the Forum signals a similarly continuous openness for dialogue.
The ASEAN-led ARF’s inclusive multilateralism-based approach as well as its key principle of non-interference enables the Association to play a constructive role as a facilitator, building bridges between DPRK and all major stakeholders in the Peninsula, and thus assuring the consistent and permanent engagement for the regional peace and security. In this regard, it is not unlikely that the recent 29th edition of the Forum might have already generated positive discussions whose effects could become visible in the following months, thus diffusing the on-going situation and creating favourable premises for further negotiations by the end of the year.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.