In the first two months of 2016, the Korean Peninsula has been witnessing yet another conflict escalation regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. On January 6, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held its fourth nuclear attempt in the form of underground hydrogen bomb test. While the United Nation Security Council was still in the process of formulating a resolution against it, on February 7, Pyongyang declared a successful missile-launch.
Those two back-to-back events trigger a strong condemnation from South Korea. The President of the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-Hye, stated that what North Korea did is a “defiance of the international community hope for peace”. The United States (US), one of South Korea’s closest partners in security issue, through the Secretary of State, John Kerry, also raised the same concern. Kerry emphasized such action is a “major provocation” that not only a threat to the Peninsula but also the US.
However, looking back at North Korea’s record these past decades, strong statements will do nothing to stop Pyongyang’s actions. Series of UN Security Council resolutions have been issued in 2006, 2009, and 2013 in respond to North Korea’s behavior. Unfortunately, Leaders, Kim Jong-Il and his current successor, Kim Jong-Un, have ignored those efforts. Another effort that seemed to be failing in reaching constructive output to solve this crisis is the Six-Party Talks, series of meetings started in 2002 between South and North Korea, which also included China, Japan, Russia and the US.
With the DPRK’s persistent regime, it will not be an easy matter to resolve the crisis. Clashing interests among other actors who are involved in this crisis also adds another layer to the problem. For example, in the current situation, the US had decided to strengthen South Korea’s defense by deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-missile system, near the border of South and North Korea. It has caused a broader tension as China strongly against the idea. For China, the existence of THAAD will bolster US’s power in East Asia.
Recalling to the failed attempts, it seems that big powers approach will not be able to produce substantive changes in the process of conflict resolution. Therefore, there are two alternatives to be considered. First, not to isolate and corner the DPRK. One must acknowledge that North Korea is already a very closed country with limited legitimate information known about what have been really happening inside its territory. Isolation will only make them more unpredictable. Therefore, it is important to maintain constant dialogue with the DPRK.
Second, to embrace the DPRK under regional framework. ASEAN dispute settlement mechanism has specific characteristics that can offer different approach from ways that had been tried successfully before. Dialogue based approached which build upon high respect to state sovereignty and preference over consultation and consensus mechanism might not seem to give promising rapid solution. Nevertheless, reflecting to ASEAN’s past experience, Melly Cabalero-Anthony (1998) stated such “slow, gradual process of regional political cooperation can be powerful strategy in achieving regional peace.”
Implementing ASEAN mechanism toward Pyongyang can ensure that series of dialogue will not be aimed to disturb the ruling regime. Furthermore, compared to the US or China, ASEAN’s interest on regional stability has less to do with controlling North Korea and more focusing on peace and security in the region. This can build trust, which is very important to maintain the sustainability of the peace process.
In this case, Indonesia has to take advantage of its close relation with both North and South Korea. It is to be noted that Indonesia is one of the five ASEAN member states that have a two-way diplomatic relation with North Korea. Indonesia also has strong trading and cultural ties with South Korea. This strategic position can be used to embrace both sides and encourage conflict resolution for the Peninsula’s unfinished problem, which is rooted back in the Cold War era.
Nevertheless, Indonesia’s initiative to mediate the two Koreas will be more comprehensive in the context of regional effort. Indonesia has push ASEAN to see the problem in the Peninsula as a regional security challenge. From that stage, if ASEAN is willing to step in, the most crucial factor is to have a united perception among ASEAN members. It is no longer a secret that ASEAN members are divided in terms of their preference of external allies, such as the US and China. Indonesia must work extra hard to sustain ASEAN unity and centrality in conflict resolution which definitely will attract both the US and China to take part in it. If Indonesia and ASEAN succeed in engaging dialogue in the Peninsula, it will not only proof the effectiveness of ASEAN mechanism, but also open opportunity for growing prospective of East Asian regionalism. (Adriana Elisabeth and Khanisa Krisman)*
* Adriana Elisabeth is a senior researcher currently is the Head of Center for Political Studies, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (Pusat Penelitian Politik, Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia/P2P LIPI). Khanisa Krisman is the coordinator ASEAN research team in the same institution.