The politicians, strategic commentators, and journalist have been anticipating that Korean Peninsular likely to become a nuclear threat for the ASEAN region and beyond. In this situation, how ASEAN should reciprocate to it, becomes a critical question to be answered by the organization? The present Korean peninsula’s nuclear threat has a colonial legacy, which has been started in the beginning of the 1900s. After the intervention of the major powers such as the US and Russia, the one country -Korea was divided into two countries -North and South Korea along with an imaginary line -the 38th parallel. The rift between both the countries was further widened and hardened with the onset of Cold War. A communist and democratic governments were established in the North and South Korea respectively by their mentors, the Russia and the US. Since the Korean War (1950-53), the Korean Peninsula has been continuously entrapped in the Cold War geopolitical cobweb and had become the battlefield for the great powers’ power play. In this backdrop, nuclear programme of North Korea has not only a major security threat for Korean peninsula rather for the contiguous region Southeast Asia as well.
The Southeast Asian countries are members of the existing non-nuclear proliferation regime. ASEAN has always remained a strong advocate of a nuclear-free world. Moreover, to make it a safer zone from such threats, the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) were signed in 1971 and 1995 respectively. The ASEAN has always taken a serious note of the nuclear tests, wherever that have been happening. Davare (2006), has claimed that the ASEAN has severely criticized India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests in 1998.
For the given of it nuclear record, all Southeast countries have restricted their relationship to only diplomatic level with the North Korea. It has also been left out from the ASEAN-led initiatives such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), engaging only in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Whereas on the other hand, the other countries from the Korean peninsula have been enjoying relationship at the highest level. South Korea has been tied with ASEAN as Sectoral Dialogue Partner (1989), Full Dialogue Partner (1991), and Summit-Level Partnership (1997). Japan is also an important partner of ASEAN and engaged with it through a various mechanisms such as ARF, ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM –Plus).
North Korea Nuclear Conflict
Presently, North Korea popularly known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been pursuing an aggressive nuclear weapons programme. Several tests of nuclear explosive devices have been carried out in the years 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016 and 2017. It has become capable of enriching uranium and producing weapon-grade plutonium. DPRK has successfully developed and deployed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. It is widely believed that DPRK is also in pursuing the programme of biological and chemical weapons programmes.
There are certain reasons to believe that the nuclear programme of the Pyongyang is a threat not only to the regional rather for the global security as well for the given not being party/member of the existing non-nuclear proliferation regimes. Although, it is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Geneva Protocol, but it is suspected of maintaining an offensive weapons programmes in against the BTWC provisions. It has unilaterally withdrawn from the non-nuclear proliferation regime such as NPT in January 2003. It is also not the member/party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) despite in possession and pursuing of a massive chemical weapons programme.
North Korea has a long list of missiles in its inventory. As per the Missile Threat website, there are two categories of North Korean missiles – in operational and under development. The operation list include KN-1 (160 km); KN-2 Tochka; Hwasong-5 (330 km); Hwasong-6 (550–700 km); Hwasong-7 ( 700–800 km ); Rodong-1 (1,300-1,600 km); Hwasong-10 ( 2,500–4,000); Pukkuksong-1 ; KN-08 (untested); Taepodong-1 Taepodong-2 as (technology demonstrator). As per the Missile Threat website, Taepodong-2 (ICBM / SLV) missile has the longest range 4,000-15,000 km, claimed it to be operational one.
For North Korea’s President, the New Year celebration of 2017, in fact, started with strategic commitment. In the New Year address on 1 January 2017, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un said, “North Korean preparations for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile have “reached the final stage.” It gave a lot of provocation to President Donald Trump and assertively responded that it would not happen. But defying the challenge, Kim Jong Un went ahead with the tests like a new mid-range ballistic missile (12 February); four ballistic missiles with a range of 1,000 km (6 March), posing more challenge to Japan and a ground test of a new high-thrust rocket engine (19 March) and lastly the missile tests in April. Trump attacked the Syrian Air Base by firing Tomahawk 59 missiles in the backdrop of a chemical attack by the Syrian government. It was a clear message for the erratic North Korean leadership. It was further substantiated, when the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said that the attack on Syria is a clear signal for any other country that has been operating outside of the international norms.
To put pressure on North Korea, President Trump said in a televised interview that the U.S. has been exploring the strategic and tactical options to the Korean nuclear threat. Along with the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), one aircraft carrier -the USS Carl Vinson, the guided-missile submarine USS Michigan and many other war ships in the North Korean Peninsula are meant to show of the force. Although, the Trump administration pursuing “Maximum pressure and engagement,” but it was apparent indication that all options are on the table vis-a-vis North Korean’s nuclear conundrum. The celebration of two days like the birth anniversary of Kim-Il Sung (15 April) and the anniversary of the founding of its military (25 April), during the ongoing nuclear imbroglio, made the issue more complicated. Large canisters and trucks near the massive military parade (15 April) and major live-fire drill (25 April), have not gone down well with the neighbouring countries like South Korea, Japan as well as the US. Eric Schmitt (April 9, 2017) has argued that it is a time tested history that North Korea has always been testing missiles by taking such provocative actions during these auspicious events. Moves and countermoves by North Korea and other stakeholder parties have complicated the security scenario not only in the Korean peninsula but for the contiguous regions as well as the Southeast Asia.
In the backdrop of nuclear tests conducted by North Korea has become a security threat for ASEAN countries. On 10 March 2017, the Nation reported in the context of ongoing nuclear threat; the ASEAN states has to reassess the security threats from Pyongyang. Previously, it was believed that North Korea’s nuclear programme is a threat only confined to South Korea, Japan, and US interests in Asia-Pacific, whereas on the contrary, the ASEAN countries will not be effected. But the latest dynamics happening in the peninsula, obligated the region to think another way round now. Though the missiles tests being conducted by North Korea have short-range capabilities, but by using the newly manufactured submarines, easily could cover the ASEAN member-states. Thus, the latest tests are being taken as serious regional and beyond security threats.
In the backdrop of the nuclear test conducted in 2016, the ASEAN has taken a far-reaching note of it. In the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting (Kuala Lumpur) in July 2016, the organization has urged and emphasized the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They pointed out that denuclearization is essential for maintaining the Asia Pacific region’s peace and stability. The dialogue is holding the pivotal position for the peaceful resolution of this nuclear issue. The Chairman issued a strong-worded statement wherein he said, “We are therefore deeply concerned by North Korea’s announcement that they have conducted a nuclear test. Such a test is inconsistent with the DPRK’s commitments under the Joint Statement of September 2005 and threatens the peace and security of East Asia. We protest such testing, and strongly urge the DPRK to desist from conducting further tests, and appeal to all parties concerned to exercise restraint, and to refrain from taking action that will aggravate the tension.” The recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit took place in Manila on 28 April 2017, wherein the summit have expressed serious concerns over the heightening tension in the Korean Peninsula. During the meeting, North Korea and other concerned parties once again were asked to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from actions that could heighten the nuclear tension further in the Korean Peninsula. The statement in this regard was issued which says, “ASEAN supports the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in this regard, calls for the resumption of dialogue on the Korean Peninsula to defuse tensions and create conditions conducive to peace and stability.” North Korean has asked the ASEAN to support it against the US’s unnecessary intervention to prevent a “nuclear holocaust.” It has also sent its Thailand-based ambassador to Manila recently, “to suggest that North Korea not be put under pressure.”
North Korea’s nuclearization programme has created a serious security concern not only for the Korean peninsula, rather for the ASEAN as well. The crisis has further become complicated by the intervention of major powers such as the US and Russia. A lot of show of forces by the US and South Korea by deploying an aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine, THAAD and joint exercises, have created reasons for ASEAN to sense the gravity of the security situation. ASEAN has been putting pressure on North Korea as well as exhorting the other stakeholder parties to find the resolution of the nuclear threat through the dialogue option by exercising self-restraints. However, the allegation of serving the US interests in the region by aligning with the former one remains on the part of the ASEAN. The ASEAN has to take a balanced view to maintain the peace and stability in the region.