Peter van Tuijl, former GPPAC Executive Director

Peter van Tuijl, Senior Advisor, Kemitraan, Partnership for Governance Reform in Indonesia (at time of writing); Former Executive Director Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC)


The risks of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula are commonly perceived from the angle of possible implications within the Northeast Asian region and considering the interests of the USA. The visual barometer of these kind of threat perceptions are maps that demonstrate how rockets from North Korea may possibly be able to reach Japan, Guam, Alaska or the US West coast. However, if North Korean ballistic missiles can reach Alaska, they can also reach Bangkok, Manila, Hanoi or Jakarta. The latter scope of the conflict remains a grossly understated element in both academic research and policy discourse on how risks related to the situation on the Korean Peninsula are evolving.

It is time to take a closer look at Southeast Asia in relation to Northeast Asian security and the conflict on the Korean Peninsula in particular. What is at stake for Southeast Asia and what might be the role of countries in the Southeast Asia region to foster a peaceful solution? Southeast Asia is both a legitimate stakeholder in the conflict and can act as a possible bridge and mediator between different parties, provided it can focus on this role and work together. Expanding the scope of Southeast Asia’s involvement in Northeast Asia’s security may create new opportunities for positive and stabilizing effects that will benefit the Asian region as a whole.[i]

Security in Northeast Asia is deteriorating

More than sixty years after the end of the Korean War, there is still no peace agreement but an armistice only. The conflict on the Korean Peninsula is caught in a cold-war type stalemate between superpowers, mainly China and the USA but also involving Russia. Meanwhile North Korea has resorted to an ambitious development of nuclear weapon capabilities as its primary strategy of defense and survival. Upon completion of writing this chapter (July 2017) North Korea has already conducted eleven sets of missile tests this year, more than in any year before.

Since the Six Party talks were suspended in 2009, there have been no serious comprehensive diplomatic interactions to work on any solution. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has agreed to subject North Korea to the firmest possible regime of sanctions, because of its nuclear policy as well as its human rights record. Every North Korean missile test is followed by a condemnation of the UNSC and an addition to the list of sanctions. However, this does not appear to have had much impact in bringing a resolution to the situation. Instead, relationships between North- and South Korea, and in the Northeast Asian region more broadly, are deteriorating. We see increased inflammatory rhetoric and an alarming military and nuclear proliferation on all sides.

In response to the intensive programme of nuclear and missile tests in North Korea, South Korea has invited the USA to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), a new missile defense system. This in turn has upset China, which sees an increased military presence of the USA in South Korea as a threat to its long-term strategic interests. Japan is also sheltering under the US security umbrella and its conservative government is increasingly stepping away from Japan’s constitutional commitment to refrain from war. The Japanese ‘Self-Defence Forces’ (SDF) are beginning to look more like a regular army with a first strike capability. This is equally upsetting for China, not least because of a territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

China takes a strident position in claiming large parts of the South China Sea. On the other side of the region, towards the North, new sea-lanes are opening up via the Artic sea, because of climate change. The question of who will control these new strategic waters emphasizes the importance of Russia and adds another contentious component in the relationships amongst the same countries. In this context, the lack of peace on the Korean Peninsula leaves Northeast Asia exposed to a potential outbreak of nuclear, chemical and/or conventional warfare that may spill over into other conflict lines. There is an urgent need to prevent a further escalation of tensions and find ways to build peaceful relationships.

Southeast Asia’s security cannot be ignored

We define Southeast Asia as the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Increasingly, Southeast Asia’s strategic interests are at stake in Northeast Asia. As pointed out, the greater scope of a potential nuclear war starting in Northeast Asia is already affecting Southeast Asia’s security. Any outbreak of nuclear, chemical or conventional warfare in Northeast Asia may very well implicate massive numbers of victims, major material damage, streams of refugees, chaos in currency and stock-markets as well as trade- and travel disturbances. Altogether it will constitute a massive disruption that will affect not only North- but also Southeast Asia.

First, a substantial part of Southeast Asia’s primary trade and investment relationships are with countries in Northeast Asia. In 2016, Credit Suisse estimated Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in the six largest economies in the ASEAN region to have reached about US$16 billion.[ii] South Korean investments in ASEAN are also strongly increasing.[iii] In 2015, countries in Northeast Asia represented well over 40% of Southeast Asia’s trade volume.[iv] Second, sizable communities of Southeast Asians live and work in Northeast Asia. The demand for domestic helpers in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan is met by hundreds of thousands of workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.[v] Third, tourism from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia has been growing exponentially over the past years, and now accounts for almost 25% of tourist arrivals in the region.[vi] All of this underscores how a destabilization of Northeast Asia may have severe economic, social and security-political implications for Southeast Asia.

Peace and Security in Northeast and Southeast Asia are connected

The fundamental incentive for a more active role for Southeast Asia in promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula is that peace and security in North- and Southeast Asia are increasingly interrelated.

Recent geopolitical shifts indicate that more than ever solutions for peace and security in Asia are to be found within the Asian region. The Trump administration that came into power in the United States in January 2017 has been sending mixed signals. To the extent that we are able to identify main imperatives in the foreign policy of the new US government, they indicate a tendency to step back from extended obligations overseas and instead promote the resourcing of defense costs locally. Japan and South Korea are increasingly aware of this new reality, which is beginning to eat away at their underlying sense of security. For example, at the time of the deployment of THAAD, President Trump called for the termination of the ‘terrible’ US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and asked South Korea to pay US$ 1 billion for THAAD, causing uproar and a refusal by South Korea.[vii]

For a longer period of time already, a greater sense of self-confidence has been developing in Asia, supported by economic development and growth in knowledge and better-educated populations. It is the backdrop for how the lack of certainty created by the current US Government is creating a true momentum to rethink the balance of power in the region. However, this opportunity to fundamentally realign relationships and settle the Korean dispute can only be used if a credible scenario is presented whereby the influence of China will not become too dominant for other countries in Asia. It is in nobody’s interest to replace one type of instability and insecurity with another.

A new balance of power in Northeast Asia that supports peace and prosperity in a sustainable manner has to ensure sufficient checks and balances on the power of China and Russia, notably to guarantee the security of Japan and North- and South Korea.[viii] This requires construing a comprehensive approach that will have a greater chance of success if it involves the legitimate interests of Southeast Asia, as it may significantly contribute to offset and even-out Chinese influence.

Taking the reverse perspective provides an additional argument. China on the one hand and Japan and South Korea on the other hand, have similar trade and investment and people to people ties with Southeast Asia, which constitutes a common interest that can help to build peace. Interestingly, the newly elected South Korean government has appointed a special envoy to ASEAN, while the suggestion has even been made for South Korea to become a member of ASEAN.[ix]

The assumption from a Chinese point of view is that China’s economic and security interests are best served if it leads in Asia in a productive balance of power that respects the interests rather than dominates other parts of the region. In this regard, a constructive role for Southeast Asia in supporting peace in Northeast Asia has the benefit of enhancing its own relationship with China and strengthening possibilities to deal with outstanding issues in the South China Sea.

One could argue that creating a bigger picture and making connections between resolving the conflict on the Korean Peninsula with resolving disputes in the South China Sea is mixing incompatible issues, overly ambitious and will make matters only more complicated. However, it might be the key to unlock peace in Asia. The main players involved are the same and they relate to each other in a configuration of often overlapping common interests in which different lines of tension and potential conflict are embedded. A comprehensive approach to peace in Asia would respond to, and could help to shape, some of the tectonic shifts in power that are beginning to emerge. With some imagination, bold leadership and support from civil society, Asia could lend a positive twist to this radical period in geopolitics.

What can Southeast Asia contribute?

Experiences from various conflict resolution processes show that an outside party with sufficient leverage can play a meaningful role and promote a focus on shared interests. Mongolia is making efforts to play this role in the Northeast Asian region. It provides a safe space for dialogue at civil society and academic levels. These efforts could be amplified by a more active role from Southeast Asia in easing tensions and working towards a peace agreement. The Korean peninsula has been the subject of ‘strategic patience’ by the USA and ‘strategic tolerance’ by China; none of which has worked to improve the situation. Southeast Asia could help to break this deadlock by providing ‘strategic mediation’. This could start by sending a high-level representation to Pyongyang and Seoul with no conditions and an open agenda.

There are different options as to how a new initiative from a Southeast Asian perspective could take shape. The political and security community of ASEAN is not yet very developed, but has the potential to become more important. A primary goal of ASEAN’s is to promote Southeast Asia as a Zone Of Peace, Freedom And Neutrality (ZOPFAN). This is building on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) that was concluded in 1995. The SEANWFZ mirrors the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) as declared by Mongolia since 1992 and provides a good point of departure to approach Northeast Asia, as constraining and minimizing the risk of a nuclear conflict would be a shared top priority.

ASEAN does not yet have a ‘Panel of the Wise’[x] like the African Union, but could very well identify three senior, experienced officials to function as a team of mediators. The advantage of using ASEAN as a framework is that it would ensure a link to the whole Southeast Asian region and provide an ongoing structure to engage all individual Southeast Asian countries, including regularly providing feedback and accountability.

From among the ASEAN countries, Indonesia is particularly well positioned to convene a conversation among the different parties involved. At the level of superpowers, Indonesia has good relationships with China, the USA and Russia. Indonesia also has friendly relationships with both South- and North Korea. The latter is due to the leading role of Indonesia in the non-aligned movement, and the resulting close connections between the Sukarno family and Kim Il Sung family, which positively resonate up to this day.

In order to complement an initiative at the level of governments, a parallel process of dialogue and consultations between representatives of civil society from Northeast and Southeast Asia could be started. This process could help to build trust, generate ideas and contribute to a constituency that will support the interactions between governments. Civil society in Southeast Asia is fairly well networked and organizes an ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) at every annual ASEAN meeting. It has significant experiences in supporting dialogue and mediation processes in Southeast Asia, also across borders, for example in relation to conflicts in Myanmar, between Cambodia and Thailand and in the Philippines. Civil Society in Northeast Asia is perhaps less experienced in dialogue and mediation but is growing in strength. Connections between Southeast and Northeast Asia civil society have developed in the context of the Asia-Europe meetings (ASEM) and other issue-based networks. Overall, the conditions for a Northeast-Southeast Asia civil society dialogue would be conducive.

Difficulties in achieving a more active role of Southeast Asia

The approach in support of a more active role for Southeast Asia in promoting peace in Northeast Asia as outlined in this chapter is not without obstacles.

First, Southeast Asian countries tend to be inward- rather than outward looking. Driven by the need to focus on economic and social development, they struggle with the primacy of domestic politics over well-developed geo-political considerations.[xi] As a result, most ASEAN member states suffer from some level of ambiguity towards China, trying to find a balance between the attraction of increased trade and investment at the expense of allowing China greater influence. In particular, the economically and politically weaker states in ASEAN such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are struggling to come to terms with China. This does not support a more unified approach of ASEAN towards Northeast Asia.

Second, there are frictions among different member states of ASEAN that tend to be perpetuated because there is a strong tradition of mutual non-interference. Human rights violations in Myanmar (related to the Rohingya) and the Philippines (drug-related killings) have raised concerns among other members of ASEAN. The 2014 military coup in Thailand has been a setback for those who believed that ASEAN could support increased participation and democracy in the region. Malaysia also appears to be drifting towards greater authoritarianism. The assertive and self-centered style of the Duterte government elected in 2016 in the Philippines is spilling over in its foreign policy, which is particularly relevant with the Philippines chairing the ASEAN in 2017. But these tensions are rarely discussed or resolved. The underlying frictions in ASEAN do not make a consolidated approach easier.

Third, the relationship between Southeast Asia and the DPRK has recently suffered a setback. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, in February 2017 at Kuala Lumpur Airport and the diplomatic row between the DPRK and Malaysia that followed have cast a shadow. Other Southeast Asian countries share similar concerns over such a breach of security at a major airport in the region.[xii] The immediate reflex is to focus on a tough response and does not help to keep in focus the larger Southeast Asian strategic interests at stake.

Concluding remarks

There is an important opportunity for Southeast Asia to play a more active role in building peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, it will require prioritizing the greater interest of the region above individual differences between countries and going beyond non-interference towards a more active diplomacy. Above all, it will require strong leadership; not an abrasive type of leadership but an inclusive and engaging type. Looking at Southeast Asia, Indonesia would be the most logical choice to lead the region down this road. Civil society in Asia would be an important resource and would be ready to support such efforts.

[i]Excerpts of this Chapter were published in an op-ed in the Jakarta Post, 4 December 2016.

[ii] “China embraces Southeast Asia with renewed trade, investment push as US turns inward,” South China Morning Post, December 12, 2016.

[iii]ASEAN/UNCTAD, “ASEAN Investment Report 2016: Foreign Direct Investment and MSME Linkages,” ((September 2016).

[iv] ASEAN, “Table 20: Top ten ASEAN trade partner countries/regions, 2015,” (December 2016)

[v] Kang, John, “Study Reveals 95% of Filipino, Indonesian Helpers in Hong Kong Exploited or Forced Labor,” Forbes, March 18, 2016.

[vi] World Tourism Organization UNWTO, “Sustained growth in international tourism despite challenges” (January 2017)

[vii] Panda, Ankit, “$1 Billion For THAAD? Trump Chips Away at the US-South Korea Alliance,” The Diplomat, April 28, 2017.

[viii] We do not discuss Korean unification, which will need to be addressed in a new balance of power in Asia as well, but would require an elaboration beyond this chapter.

[ix] Velloor, Ravi, “Why South Korea eyes ASEAN,” Straits Times, June 9, 2017.

[x] African Union Peace and Security, Panel of the Wise (PoW), (December 2016)

[xi] Laksmana, Evan A., “The domestic politics of Indonesia’s approach to the tribunal ruling and the South China Sea.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 38, no. 3 (2016): 382–388.

[xii] Kurlantzick, Joshua., “Will the North Korea — Malaysia crisis cause a shift in Southeast Asian States’ relationships with Pyongyang?,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 15, 2017.

Reflections on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia -Perspectives from the Ulaanbaatar Process-

CHAPTER 1: Northeast Asian Security and a Vision for a Nuclear Weapon-free Zone, CHAPTER 2: Korean Peninsula Security Issues and their impact on Regional Stability, CHAPTER 3: Civil Society Dialogue and Multi-Track Diplomacy in Peacebuilding in Northeast Asia

GPPAC Northeast Asia

Written by

Northeast Asia regional network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global civil society-led network for peacebuilding.

Reflections on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia -Perspectives from the Ulaanbaatar Process-

CHAPTER 1: Northeast Asian Security and a Vision for a Nuclear Weapon-free Zone, CHAPTER 2: Korean Peninsula Security Issues and their impact on Regional Stability, CHAPTER 3: Civil Society Dialogue and Multi-Track Diplomacy in Peacebuilding in Northeast Asia

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