In the spring of 2000 in Bangkok, when Thailand was the Asean chair, Thai foreign minister Dr Surin Pitsuwan said in private to the author that North Korea must be brought into the Asean circle, especially the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the only region-side security platform, so that Pyongyang’s voice could be heard.
“North Korea must not be isolated. The country needs friends and supports. Asean can help, ” he said.
Following the group’s goodwill and friendship, there was a brief but unsuccessful attempt by the Thai government under then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to push North Korea for possible membership of the Asia Pacific Leaders’ Meeting in 2003 when Bangkok played host. Asean efforts to bring Pyongyang into the regional scheme of things continued unabated. Later on in 2008, Singapore, as the Asean chair, managed to convince North Korea to sign the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which has enabled Pyongyang to join two dozen other nations in the ARF to discuss regional and international issues including the Korean Peninsula.
Nearly two decades of friendship and confidence that were carefully nurtured by Asean for North Korea was all but shattered by the assassination of Kim Jong-nam on February 13. He was the exiled half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two women – Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, who were recruited by North Korean agents. One has been accused of smearing deadly VX nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong-nam. Four North Korean men also implicated in the attack fled on the day of the killing.
As the investigation continues by the Malaysian government, instead of cooperating with local authorities, Pyongyang has chosen hostile responses. From now on, North Korea’s overall ties with Asean and individual member states will nosedive and are likely to be downgraded. Malaysia has already recalled its ambassador in Pyongyang and yesterday expelled North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol, who failed to apologise for attacks on the police inquiry into the murder.
The airport incident has raised serious concerns among Asean leaders about North Korea’s capacity for clandestine and criminal activities in their countries and towards their citizens. At the Boracay retreat on February 21, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman briefed his Asean colleagues on the situation. Due to the ongoing investigation, the chairman’s statement did not mention the assassination but focused on the recent ballistic missile launch, which they expressed grave concern about. Looking to the future, there are at least four serious implications that need to be discerned. First of all, Pyongyang has abused the friendship and trust of Asean and its members.
The killing, which was carried out in broad daylight in a public place, was a blatant act that immediately put Malaysia under a global microscope. Kuala Lumpur now has to investigate the murder and manage the ramifications without help from Pyongyang.
Secondly, as a group, Asean has to tackle the issue of North Korea’s espionage activities within its member countries. It is an open secret that some Asean members on the mainland have been considered havens of clandestine activities by North Korea under various disguises — diplomats and businessmen. In the case of Thailand, colleagues of a North Korean diplomat who defected tried to abduct him on a van trip from Bangkok to Vientiane in early 1999. The kidnap attempt floundered after the van overturned in the Northeast, but the affair was not resolved until the son of the diplomat was released after lengthy negotiations. Six North Korean diplomats were expelled and 10 allegedly involved in the case later banned from ever returning. Thailand then placed a moratorium on the number of their diplomats here.
In the near term, Asean must work out a common approach otherwise Pyongyang will use existing loopholes in various Asean members’ systems for its advantage, as the recent assassination demonstrated. In the case of Doan Thi Huong, it is well known in Hanoi that she was recruited by a North Korean agent a few years ago, for this mission.
Asean members, both old and new, have a long association with North Korea – since the Cambodian conflict, as the former leader Kim Jong-il strongly backed the Asean-sponsored anti-Phnom Penh government at the time. Among Asean members, Malaysia had one of the cosiest relationships with North Korea. In the past, North Korean special forces used to provide security protection to Cambodia’s royal family.
Thirdly, in recent years, Asean has issued numerous statements expressing grave concern over Pyongyang’s testing of nuclear weapons and most recently its launch of an intercontinental missile. All Asean capitals are within the reach of both medium and long-range missiles. Given the secrecy inside North Korea and the constant treat of firing ballistic missiles beyond its frontier, Asean needs to seriously discuss the collective threat from North Korean missile technology.
Finally, the international community must now zero in on the potential proliferation of VX nerve agent. If this dangerous and banned substance could be smuggled into Malaysia, which has one of the region’s most stringent customs and border controls, other members would also be vulnerable.
For the past 13 years, the UN has condemned North Korea’s gross violation of human rights, besides sanctions imposed by various UN Security Council resolutions over its nuclear tests. However, with the current use inside Asean of VX nerve agent, which has been banned internationally, effective measures must be initiated to ensure that the deadly chemical does not spread and fall into the hands of rogue states, terrorists and extremists.