Pyongyang still has some friends in ASEAN, for now

Pyongyang still has some friends in ASEAN, for now
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
PHOTO: Reuters

Despite its recent belligerence, North Korea has some friends in South-east Asia, at least by the standards of the hermit state.

Cambodia, which recently allowed North Korea to design, build and operate a US$24 million (S$34 million) museum dedicated to Angkor history in Siem Reap, even banned the 2014 Hollywood film The Interview, which satirises North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Myanmar, highlighted in a 2014 United Nations report for possible involvement in arms-related co-operation with North Korea, similarly confiscated copies of The Interview from retailers.

Laos turned back nine North Korean defectors in 2013.

While the fallout over the Feb 13 murder of Mr Kim's estranged half-brother in Kuala Lumpur has left North Korea's erstwhile cosy relationship with Malaysia in tatters, its diplomatic ties with several other ASEAN nations remain intact.

Just 24 countries around the world have embassies in Pyong- yang. Five of them - Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia - are ASEAN member states.

North Korea maintains embassies in eight ASEAN countries except Brunei and the Philippines.

Read also: Pyongyang bans Malaysians from leaving North Korea: KCNA

Regional diplomats privately tell The Straits Times that these missions are under close watch for illicit activities, given longstanding allegations that they are used as bases to generate foreign exchange for the cash- strapped country.

A 2014 UN report detailed how North Korea was using sophisticated methods - including possibly involving its embassies - to evade sanctions. The document aired suspicions that North Korean embassies in Cuba and Singapore were used to facilitate an illicit shipment of fighter jets that were seized in Panama from a North Korean vessel in 2013.

It highlighted the involvement of a Singapore entity called Chinpo Shipping Company, which was "co-located" with the North Korean embassy in Singapore.

Read also: Malaysia says North Koreans not allowed to leave: Deputy PM

However, an embassy official, in response to queries posed later by Reuters news agency, said the embassy had moved.

In January last year, a Singapore court fined Chinpo $180,000.

Cambodia's cosy relations with North Korea stem from legacy.

Its late king Norodom Sihanouk was sheltered by the North's "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung during his country's civil war in the 1970s.

Pyongyang has also courted ASEAN nations to reduce its diplomatic isolation and economic dependence on China. In 2014, then foreign minister Ri Su Yong went on a tour of Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore.

Professor Park Sung Kwan, who specialises in international relations in South Korea's Kyungnam University, told The Straits Times: "Strategically, Indonesia and Vietnam are the important countries to North Korea because it understands that the two countries are the strongest nations in the region in terms of their political influence.

"Economically, Singapore and Thailand are very important because they trade with and supply daily necessities and electronic products to North Korea."

Latest available figures from the United Nations international trade statistics database show that Singapore exported US$28.3 million worth of items like tobacco, toiletries and electrical equipment to North Korea in 2015. Thailand exported US$73.8 million worth of products, including rubber and meat and fish preparations.

But the value of exports has fallen in recent years.

With stricter sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear tests, regional destinations that allow visa-free entry for its nationals are drying up.

Before Malaysia scrapped visa- free entry for North Koreans on Monday, Singapore removed the visa-free status in October last year, as part of efforts to implement fresh sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council that year.

This leaves just Vietnam, which grants visa exemptions to North Koreans on ordinary passports - but only for those on official visits.

As a bloc, ASEAN admitted North Korea to its flagship regional security meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, in 2000. But diplomats say it has long hesitated, considering North Korea's request to be elevated to the position of ASEAN dialogue partner, like the United States, China, India and South Korea are now.

The brazen murder of Mr Kim's half-brother Kim Jong Nam and North Korea's current behaviour in the region have made that possibility even more remote.

"If you are doing this to ASEAN, you are burning the bridge," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Half-brother of N Korean leader assassinated in Malaysia

This article was first published on Mar 09, 2017.
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