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Strengthening Southeast Asia-North Korea Engagement in the Post-COVID-19 Era


The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually come to an end. However, as it recedes, geopolitical flashpoints that have remained relatively dormant during the COVID-19 period will re-emerge. One such flashpoint is on the Korean peninsula.

The hard truth is that international sanctions against North Korea have not achieved their desired outcome of getting the isolated state to denuclearize. Instead, these sanctions have become an obstacle to international humanitarian aid activities in North Korea, thereby hurting many of the 25 million ordinary North Koreans, especially during the annual devastation caused by severe typhoons and floods.

Prior to March 19, when North Korea severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia, all Southeast Asian states had official diplomatic relations with North Korea. Despite this latest development, the nine remaining Southeast Asian countries are still in a unique position to use such links to better engage with North Korea and integrate it into the broader East Asian regional community. However, two questions are often posed: first, why should Southeast Asia do more to engage North Korea? And second, what extra value can Southeast Asia bring?

Why Should Southeast Asia Do More To Engage North Korea?

To begin with, an isolated North Korea that feels it is not being heard is likely to resort to provocative actions in order to get more attention from the international community. While Southeast Asian states may not consider North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs to pose a direct threat to them, any missile or nuclear tests by North Korea will result in an increase in tensions in the region – tensions which are detrimental to the region as a whole.

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Therefore, it is in the interests of every state in the region to maintain or increase its engagement with North Korea so that the latter’s perspectives and concerns are better understood. This sentiment is backed up by the findings from a 2019 survey from Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The survey found that 60.8 percent of more than 1,000 Southeast Asian experts and stakeholders from the policy, research, business, civil society, and media communities favored continued engagement between Southeast Asian states and North Korea.

Second, should North Korea decide to open up its markets in future and if some sanctions are lifted against it, it represents an emerging market with enormous untapped opportunities for Southeast Asia. According to some Southeast Asian businessmen who have traveled to North Korea, it has a low-cost, disciplined, hardworking and skilled labor force. Further integration of North Korea into the regional community will open up numerous opportunities from which Southeast Asian states and companies stand to benefit. This is beneficial to North Korea as well in its ongoing efforts to build up its economy and diversify its trade and investment ties away from an over reliance on China.

What Extra Value Can Southeast Asia Bring?

In the near future, a practical and feasible way that Southeast Asia could choose to better engage North Korea would be through humanitarian assistance programs. This is especially since Southeast Asian humanitarian organizations have had a track record of having done so previously in North Korea. Moreover, humanitarian assistance is apolitical and should be rendered to any country or people in need regardless of political considerations. Such programs can be resumed once the COVID-19 pandemic is over but preparations to build or rebuild these links with North Korea should begin now.

Several Southeast Asian NGOs have experience working in North Korea. For example, MERCY Malaysia deployed a medical relief team to North Korea in 2004 following an explosion of two trains at Ryongchon railway station (about 200 kilometers north of Pyongyang), which resulted in the deaths of approximately 160 people, injuries to 1,300 (including children from nearby schools), and the destruction or damage of 1,850 homes.

The medical relief team brought with it medical supplies for the victims of the disaster and they visited health facilities and the Korea-Malaysia Friendship Farm. Back then, MERCY Malaysia was sourcing funds “in order to establish long term and sustainable aid projects” in North Korea, including “supplies of basic medical equipment and drugs, infrastructure rehabilitation, and training.” However, it is uncertain if those plans were eventually carried out and if MERCY Malaysia will be allowed back into North Korea in future since North Korea-Malaysia diplomatic ties have been severed.

Another example is that of the Singapore Red Cross (SRC). In August 2007, when North Korea suffered from casualties and damage by severe floods, the SRC contributed $19,000 to this humanitarian effort. In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, SRC announced a contribution of more than 800,000 Singapore dollars’ worth of relief items to 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific, which included an unspecified sum to North Korea.

Mercy Relief, another humanitarian organization based in Singapore, dispatched a team and aid to North Korea in 2012 that included more than 20 tons of relief supplies worth 270,000 Singapore dollars, including 80,000 packs of their own pre-packed and ready-to-eat meals and 10 units of water filtration systems, for distribution to the regions most affected by severe floods.

The above-mentioned humanitarian missions by Southeast Asian NGOs to North Korea show that North Korea is willing to engage with and accept humanitarian assistance from Southeast Asia, even as it remains reluctant to do so with other countries.

Southeast Asian NGOs should also leverage the diplomatic presence of some of the Southeast Asian states in Pyongyang. The current ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang (ACP) comprises of representatives from the Cambodian, Indonesian, Lao, and Vietnamese Embassies in North Korea and it is particularly well-placed to facilitate such humanitarian initiatives. These embassies can better understand and report on the needs of North Korea based on their assessments on the ground in the country. This is especially crucial for NGOs that require more information about ongoing disasters before they can secure the funding necessary for their programs. The ACP can also help monitor the distribution of aid provided by Southeast Asian NGOs within North Korea to ensure that the aid is given to the agreed upon recipients.

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Increasing Engagement With North Korea in the Post-COVID-19 Era

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions to the world we knew. In order to prepare better for the reality of the post-COVID-19 East Asian region, one in which geopolitical flashpoints will re-emerge, we need to start now. Southeast Asian states and NGOs can play a significant role in engaging North Korea and this can start with increasing humanitarian assistance to North Korea once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

In the medium term, should international circumstances allow, increases in economic, diplomatic, and people-to-people exchanges between Southeast Asian states and North Korea will be beneficial to all parties concerned and help to further integrate North Korea into the regional community. A less isolated and more engaged North Korea is in the interests of every state in the East Asian region and Southeast Asia certainly has an important role to play to make that become a reality.



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