Talking Nuclear in Asean
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had taken for granted it was a nuclear-weapons-free region, and had apparently never anticipated an abrupt threat of nukes in the territory. But the 10-member trade bloc had a rude-awakening mid-June when North Korea took its nuclear game into the heart of Asean.
All of a sudden, Southeast Asia has become a centre of gravity in global politics. Thailand, which hosts the Asean Regional Forum, sent a diplomat to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea on July 6. On the same day the UN Security Council condemned the communist state’s firing of seven ballistic missiles over the weekend on US Independence Day (July 4), the reclusive country’s biggest display of missile firepower in three years.
Through Panich Vikitset, a Beijing-based foreign ministry official, Thailand has invited North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun to attend the regional security talks to be held in Phuket, a resort island 600 kilometres south of Bangkok.
Among the leaders scheduled to attend the annual security conference is US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and foreign ministers from South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and possibly North Korea, all countries participating in the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
The US is expected to propose stronger sanctions against North Korea at the Asean Regional Forum scheduled to start on July 21 in Phuket, Thailand.
The US views the ARF as an effective diplomatic stage to curb North Korean activities in Southeast Asia. North Korea became a full member of the ARF in 2000. As the only Asian regional body specialising in security, the ARF is seen by the Obama administration as a useful structure for implementing the UN sanctions.
Tensions with North Korea have risen this year as it carried out its second nuclear test, a series of missile launches and threatened South Korea and the UN Security Council tightened sanctions on the totalitarian state.
There will be a sideline meeting of the six-party group If North Korea agrees to participate in the Phuket forum. A similar six-party meeting was held on the sidelines of the regional security forum last year when it was hosted by Singapore.
The forum is deemed Asia's most important annual gathering on regional security issues, such as the North Korean nuclear threat and Myanmar’s ongoing political instability.
The forum includes Asean's 10 member states, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, East Timor, India, Japan, North Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, South Korea, the European Union, Russia and the United States.
Thailand, which is chairing Asean this year, plans to enforce the Internal Security Act July 10-24 to assure that the forum is not disrupted by anti-government protests.
Thailand's attempt to host a summit of leaders from Asean and its close allies China, Japan and South Korea on April 12-13 at the beach resort of Pattaya 80 kilometres east of Bangkok was scuttled by anti-government protestors who stormed the conference venue.
Whether North Korea will take part in the talks remains uncertain. Even if it does there is no guarantee it will help calm regional fears. Asean has just been forced to wonder what is behind the mysterious but fast-growing relations between North Korea and Myanmar, another isolationist with similar nuclear ambitions.