Somewhere on the pre-fringes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, an emissary from a foreign power had been quietly lobbying in Manila. His country is not in Southeast Asia, so he was not officially part of any Asean delegation. Nevertheless, he had a message for the 10 Asean foreign ministers who gathered there last week.
His name is Mun Song Mo, Ambassador of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to Thailand and his country’s non-resident representative for the Philippines – decreed as such by all-powerful Presidium of the state’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly. A career diplomat who served in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he’s a former ambassador to Ethiopia, Sudan and India.
But he’s believed to be something else, and that is that he’s a close confident to North Korea’s regent family and the country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Mun, then, is someone whose message will have got through.
Apparently, it was a simple message. As it’s been relayed, it was “to suggest that North Korea not be put under any pressure” during the Asean Summit. That was really the gist of it. It’s not clear if it was by way of a proposal or something more menacing; but it was important enough that it had to be delivered by a high-ranking member of the DPRK diplomatic establishment who flew into Manila from Bangkok to present it to the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs ministry in person.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsular are running high right now as relations between Pyongyang and Washington plummet to new lows that have put both countries on a war footing. American naval assets – the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, and nuclear submarine, USS Michigan – are already in Korean waters. A second carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, remains on standby at its Japanese port base of Yokosuka.
Meanwhile, Kim continues to test fire his ballistic missiles – the latest on Saturday; the third in a week – and has put his 1.2 million-strong army on alert threatening to send female battalions of up to 500,000 active personnel to the front line (photo), the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Presumably, he’s working on the notion that the US would have a problem killing women; presumably though – to borrow an American term – combatants would be viewed as ‘gender neutral’.
At the same time, both sides are conducting high-profile and ramped-up military exercises signaling to each other via their respective dress rehearsals what the other can expect in the event of a full-blown conflict.
And while US President Donald Trump warns Kim of a “major, major conflict”, Kim’s rhetoric is even starker: “Should the US imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces open even a single fire into the inviolable territorial land, waters and air of the DPRK, its revolutionary armed forces will promptly mount (an) annihilating strike and wipe out the aggressors to the last man”.
In the event, and against that backdrop, on Friday Asean foreign ministers issued their statement – and probably not the one Ambassador Mun wanted to hear.
They expressed “grave concern over the escalation of tension in the Korean Peninsula,” including two nuclear tests in 2016 and subsequent ballistic missile launches conducted by the North Korean military. They “strongly” urged Pyongyang to “comply fully with its obligations” under a number of UN Security Council resolutions. They also affirmed Asean’s support for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, urging a resumption of talks on this issue.
In short, Asean’s foreign ministers stood firm. And so they should. What’s happening on and around the Korean Peninsular right now could affect all their countries if, as the foreign ministers state, Pyongyang, along with all parties concerned – in other words, Washington and Seoul – don’t “exercise self-restraint” and de-escalate the tensions. As they said in their statement, instability on the peninsula “seriously impacts the region and beyond”.
North Korea’s missile arsenal is a matter of concern to the Southeast Asian region even without nuclear capabilities. Its Musudan medium-range rocket which has already been tested can travel 3,500 km almost certainly – and possibly as much as 4,000 km which would put every capital city in Asean in its scope. The furthest distance is Yangon in Myanmar which is 3,776 kilometres away, Bangkok’s next at 3,744. Manila at a distance of 2,756 km is the closest in range.
But the DPRK arsenal has two other missiles; long-range ones, and they’re brutes – the KN-14, range 10,000 km and the KN-08 which is reputed to be able to travel 11,500 km. For these the country’s main launch site at Pukchang some 90 kilometres north of the capital and home of the country’s oldest labour camp. But the North Korean military have another medium-to-long-range ballistic missile, the Pukgukong, a surface-to-surface rocket that’s been tested from land and submarine.
One man who’ll be keeping a very close watch on all these developments is US Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, an expert on North Korea, and it’s very likely that his counsel will have been sought by the Philippines Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary, Enrique Manalo, who replaced Perfecto Yasay Jr in March after the Commission of Appointments deemed him ineligible for the post citing citizenship concerns.
Korean-born American, Sung Kim, was the US Special Representative for North Korean Policy from 2014 to 2016 and served as Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks – a peace-seeking initiative started in 2003 – from 2008 to 2011. He was Director of the Office of Korean Affairs in Washington and served as Chief of Political Military Affairs in Seoul. There’s not likely to be anyone in Manila who has a better grasp on the North Korean psyche than him.
The Philippines and Brunei are the only Asean countries where North Korea does not have an embassy. It has them in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam all maintain embassies in Pyongyang.
Generally, little is heard from these missions though that change dramatically in March when the DPRK’s ambassador to Malaysia was expelled following the 13 February assassination by North Korean agents of Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport. There’s also though to be agents regularly in Thailand, a route for North Korean defectors to get into South Korea. The DPRK has 55 diplomatic and consular overseas missions.
Relations between Manila and Pyongyang, meanwhile, are conducted via Mun in Bangkok and by the Philippines’ non-resident representative in Beijing. But though they’re young – diplomatic relations were only established in 2000 – in one area they’ve been quite productive. According to the Seoul-based Daily NK, an online newspaper that reports on North Korea, the Philippines is the DPRK’s third largest trading partner after China and India, though we’ve not been able to independently verify that.
More significantly, the Philippines’s eighth-largest trading partner is South Korea with a total trade value of US$2.1 billion last year. South Korea is also a large investor country with some US$23.2 billion (9.4% of total) investments in 2016, and is one of the Philippines’ most important bilateral and strategic partners.
Relations with Pyongyang, however, were a long time in gestation; they took more than 20 years. During the Korean War (1950-53), the Philippines naturally supported the South and its main ally the US. The Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea, under United Nations Command, comprised 1,468 troops. Its major actions included the Battle of Yultong and the Battle of Hill Eerie where it operated alongside US cavalry and infantry divisions.
But that wasn’t the only baggage they carried. In the 1980s North Korea – then headed by the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, the present leader’s grandfather and founder of the Kim dynasty – had been cited by the US State Department of supplying weapons to the Philippines’ New People’s Army, communist rebels that then Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, have vowed to drive from his land.
Despite some efforts to put all that behind them, the Philippine-North Korea relationship is far from stress free. In March last year, the Philippines impounded a North Korean ship, the 6,830-ton Sierra Leone-registered cargo carrier MV Jin Teng, under new UN Security Council guidelines and deported its crew. The reason given by the Foreign Affairs ministry was “so that (the vessel) cannot engage in economic activity that could benefit North Korea”.
Two weeks later, another North Korean vessel, the Tuvalu-registered 4,893-ton chemical tanker Theresa Begonia was impounded by Philippines’ customs agents. Both incidents – the first at Subic Bay, the former US naval base in the north; the second off Misamis Oriental province in the south – inflamed Pyongyang. In response to the UN sanctions, the regime let loose a volley of six short-range missiles into the sea and the country’s nuclear arsenal was readied for pre-emptive use.
All that aside, Pyongyang would welcome closer ties with Manila, including establishing an embassy there. It’s believed that this was looked at back in 2000 but the Philippine side felt it was premature and had concerns about the “extra-diplomatic activities” of the DPRK’s diplomatic staff.
But Asean, too, has regularly sought closer relations with North Korea and in 2008 when Singapore had the Asean chair, it was welcomed into the Asean Regional Forum – an Asean-led trans-global conference which stretches across North America, Europe, Asia and Australasia – after acceding to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a peace treaty that requires all regional disputes to be resolved by peaceful means.
What happens next on the Korean Peninsular the world awaits with baited breath. One thing that is clear though is that as far as Asean is concerned, it’s of one mind: it will continue to support peace across the two Koreas and it will continue to resist and speak out against Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
And coming at this time, as the world’s stability rests on a knife edge, the unequivocal statement issued by Asean’s foreign-leaders group, is an expression of solidarity which transcends the usual symbolism of post-meeting communiqués. Their message is directly intended for Pyongyang’s consumption.