Southeast Asia's choice

What the Singapore summit means for the region

The world’s collective gaze is fixed on Singapore this week, eager to see the outcome of US President Donald Trump’s historic meeting with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. But how will the talks affect Southeast Asia’s relationship with the volatile and secretive nation, which, despite international sanctions, still has active trade links with many of the region’s countries?

Robin Spiess
June 11, 2018
What the Singapore summit means for the region
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waving as he leaves for Singapore in Pyongyang, North Korea Photo: KCNA / EPA-EFE

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un both arrived in Singapore a day ahead of their historic first encounter, the former steely-eyed, the latter smiling, as they confidently strode from their planes onto the tarmac.

Tomorrow’s landmark summit will see the US and North Korea potentially discussing North Korea’s denuclearisation and the end of hostilities with its southern neighbour. The leaders, known for their unpredictability, have said they believe the summit will go well – though it is unclear whether they will leave the negotiating table feeling satisfied.

“I think within the first minute, I’ll know,” Trump said at a press conference in Canada. “Just my touch, my feel. That’s what I do.”

Whether the summit lasts a few minutes or several hours, its result will no doubt leave a lasting impact. In Southeast Asia, where the summit is taking place, the conclusion of these negotiations could have an especially interesting effect. While the entire region has long been caught in the crossfire between the US and North Korea, it could become further embroiled in the conflict depending on the outcome of the negotiation process.

Western Sanctions on North Korea: Still Important Post-Summit

As tensions between North Korea and its ideological rivals in the West have increased, so too have economic sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) autocratic regime.

While Western sanctions against North Korea’s illicit trade have long been in effect, the scope of these sanctions began expanding in 2017 to incorporate all DPRK economic activity worldwide. Bans on North Korean exports, business ventures and immigration have been imposed over the course of the past year.

Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of the summit Photos:

Yet only a handful of Asean countries have taken up the mantle to prove they are willing to comply with Western sanctions.

Singapore – whose government has been applauded by both North Korea and the US for organising the summit – suspended all commercial trade with North Korea last November, and revoked all North Koreans’ work permits in March this year.

After the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport last year, Malaysia recalled its ambassador to North Korea, canceled visa-free entry for North Koreans, sent hundreds of North Korean workers back to their country and encouraged businesses to cease dealings with the DPRK regime.

Publicly, Southeast Asian leaders have expressed their support for the West’s denuclearisation goals, urging the DPRK to put an end to its nuclear programme and to “immediately and fully comply with its obligations under all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions” at a conference in Australia earlier this year.

However, with the exceptions of Malaysia and Singapore, Southeast Asia has been slow on the uptake of UN- and US-imposed sanctions on North Korea, and Western enforcement of these measures has been essentially nonexistent.

As of early 2017, 116 of the 193 countries bound by the UN’s resolutions on North Korea had failed to submit a report of their compliance. Among those that did not report back were Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

If the upcoming summit yields good results, the focus will be on thinking of ways to use the lifting of sanctions to encourage North Korea to move forward with denuclearisation

Naoko Aoki

According to Naoko Aoki, research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, it is important for countries to prove their compliance in the future even if the negotiations end on a positive note. The promise of lifting the sanctions could prove the very tool the West needs to continue putting pressure on the DPRK regime.

Aoki hopes the summit will mark the start of a long-term negotiation between the two countries. As North Korea and the US enter into a new relationship, the West could reward cooperative efforts by slowly putting an end to its sanctions.

“If the upcoming summit yields good results – in the sense that the two countries agree to North Korea’s eventual denuclearisation and improvement of ties – the focus will not be on imposing new sanctions or strengthening the enforcement of existing ones, but thinking of ways to use the lifting of sanctions to encourage North Korea to move forward with denuclearisation,” she told Southeast Asia Globe in an email.

“There has to be some kind of incentive package for North Korea down the road,” she added.

If the summit proves a failure, however, the US could return to the same sanction-heavy tactic it has employed over the past year – though it may not see its desired results from this approach. As the UN and US have proven to come up short in enforcing existing measures against North Korea, Aoki doubted that even renewed hostilities would convince countries to fully implement new sanctions.

“If the summit does not yield good results, the US would want to go back to its maximum pressure campaign and reliance on coercion,” she said. “But… the willingness to support that kind of coercive approach appears to have decreased.”

Southeast Asia’s Unwillingness to Abide by Sanctions

Southeast Asia has proved unwilling to abide by Western sanctions, in part due to its long-standing relationship with North Korea. At the start of 2017, Pyongyang’s embassies and diplomatic personnel spanned across nearly all Asean countries, barred only from Brunei and the Philippines. North Korean delegations have routinely attended Asean regional forums for nearly 20 years, and DPRK nationals continue to enjoy visa-free travel across most Southeast Asian countries.

Most importantly, North Korea has long been highly economically active in the region – its trade with Asean members reached $181 million in 2015. The Philippines alone boasted $87 million worth of bilateral trade with North Korea in 2016, becoming North Korea’s third largest trading partner after China and India.

Any sanction-violating trade with North Korea helps to make a bad situation worse

Alexandra Bell

Choosing to cut North Korea off at its knees, then, threatens to have serious economic implications for sanction-compliant Asean countries. If the US were to take an even harder stance on North Korea following a failed summit, the region’s leaders might be forced to take uncomfortable and economically damaging action.

“Southeast Asian leaders still see some value in maintaining their relationship with North Korea, even though the political relationship can sometimes be difficult,” Hoo Chiew-Ping, a North Korea expert at the National University of Malaysia, told the Washington Post earlier this month. “They still want to retain their neutrality.”

And yet, in the eventuality of a failed summit, the West may depend more than ever before on Southeast Asia – and on every region enabling North Korea’s economic activity – to strictly enforce sanctions and bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, according to Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

“Since a denuclearised North Korea is in the interest of the entire international community, compliance with sanctions should be a priority for all countries in the region,” said Bell. “Failure to comply with the sanctions regime could result in economic isolation and increased pressure from the US and its allies.”

Trade that goes against the West’s wishes could quash any hope of nenuclearlisation, she said: “Any sanction-violating trade with North Korea helps to make a bad situation worse.”

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