The ASEAN Regional Forum: New Ways to Say "No"



Each year, the ASEAN Regional Forum gets a quick glance from those interested in the Korean peninsula. Given that it is one of the few multilateral forums that the North Koreans attend, hope springs eternal that bilateral talks might materialize and break the current deadlock: North-South (both South Korean Foreign Minister Yun byung-se and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong were in attendance but contact appeared limited), with the other five parties (the Japanese foreign minister did talk with Ri as did Russian foreign minister Lavrov), even with the US (Kerry of course demurred). The South has been proposing that the North show up for some kind of exploratory talks—or what we call “talks on talks”—as a way of finessing the continued interest in at least some signs of intent.

True to form, however, North Korea used the occasion to tick off a number of new threats.

It may be that Pyongyang was feeling a little heat. As of this writing, the final ARF communiqué is still being hammered out and is not posted due to divisions over the South China Sea issue. But the ASEAN foreign ministers managed a Statement on the Korean question. Even if little soft around the edges, it nonetheless took a pretty clear position on North Korean compliance with UNSC resolutions, the 2005 Joint Statement, missile tests and the ultimate goal of complete denuclearization:

“161. We expressed concern over recent developments in the Korean Peninsula including the recent ballistic missile launches and underlined the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security in the region. We highlighted the importance of trust-building activities on the Peninsula and we encouraged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to fully comply with all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and commitments under the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks. We called for the creation of necessary conditions for the early resumption of Six-Party Talks and the continuous inter-Korean dialogue, which would pave the way for the complete and verifiable de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner and Korean reunification.”

Following a meeting with the Russian delegation Foreign Ministry Lavrov also reiterated Russian support for a denuclearized peninsula. And all of this has come hard on the heels of the Iran deal, which North Korea has quite explicitly rejected as a model.

The North Korean reaction was to hold yet another press conference, a new and more forward approach to its public relations. But the message was hardly promising; to the contrary. Former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Ri Dong Il, now playing the role of spokesman for Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, managed to: warn of a fourth nuclear test and "Second Korean War" if the US hostile policy—including exercises—continued; suggest that a “satellite launch” could be coming around the 70th anniversary of the Workers Party in October; and offered a full-throated defense of the byungjin line, under which North Korea pursues economic development and keeps its nuclear weapons; interestingly, Ri showed some confidence in economic developments, claiming that North Korea’s development was in a “rising phase.” Indeed, some stories over the past year by the Diplomat (here and here) and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (here) suggest that the interest in the ASEAN connection may have little to do with security issues but rather provides an opportunity for economic diplomacy.

Any questions? We are only puzzled that anyone still thinks that all of these protestations of “no” really mean “yes” or even “maybe.”

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