The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is renowned for failing to adopt a unified stance on crucial regional challenges, undermining the grouping’s raison d’etre and relevance in shaping Asia’s strategic architecture.

Yet the brewing crisis on the Korean Peninsula presents a unique opportunity for the 10-member association’s strategic redemption. Asean has recently shown unusual unity on the agreed need to rein in North Korea’s burgeoning ballistic missile and nuclear threat to the region, while at the same time avoiding an openly confrontational stance.

The grouping has managed to maintain functional channels of communication with all relevant players, from Seoul and Pyongyang to Beijing, Tokyo and Washington. Those perceived as neutral lines, proponents say, put Asean in a unique position to steer the protagonists towards dialogue and peaceful management of the rising crisis.

Indeed, Asean is the last remaining diplomatic bridge between Pyongyang and the broader Asian neighborhood.

The collapse of the so-called “Six Party Talks” in 2009 left the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) as the sole regional multilateral mechanism where senior officials from North Korea can sit next to and have the chance to hold dialogue with representatives from South Korea, China, Japan and the US.

During the ARF held in August in Manila, a high-level North Korean delegation led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho met with Southeast Asian leaders as well as China. He held constructive dialogue with Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano to discuss regional security concerns.

The North Korean diplomat also met Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who cordially described Pyongyang as “a good dialogue partner” and reiterated Asean’s continued support for dialogue and peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho walks as he exits after a courtesy call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho after a courtesy call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Manila on August 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Months earlier, during the Asean Summit in April, North Korea sent an unprecedented letter of request to the Filipino president and Asean chairman beseeching Duterte to prevent “nuclear holocaust” by providing “a proper proposal” to de-escalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

In response, Duterte called on concerned parties to exercise caution and held back-to-back conversations with his American and Chinese counterparts to explore ways to prevent military conflict.

The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea, which is deeply worried about military escalation, has also shown greater interest in soliciting Asean’s assistance to rein in not only Pyongyang’s provocative behavior, but also ameliorate Sino-American tensions over the issue.

In that direction, South Korea hosted the International Conference on Asean-Korea partnership in late August, which saw the attendance of senior diplomats from across the region. During the event, Seoul called on the regional body to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the North Korean crisis.

The Moon administration has been encouraged by the regional body’s increasingly tough language as well as cooperative behavior vis-à-vis Pyongyang’s destabilizing behavior. In recent months, Asean has expressed its “grave concern” over North Korea’s ballistic missile tests.

Southeast Asian countries have also dramatically scaled back their economic and strategic interaction with North Korea, in line with international sanctions and rising US diplomatic pressure to sever ties.

US President Donald Trump welcomes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump welcomes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The Philippines, for one, suspended bilateral trade with the reclusive regime earlier this year. Thailand and Malaysia are under US pressure to shut down so-called North Korean front companies that facilitate various trades in their countries. Other Asean states, including Vietnam, a Cold War ally to North Korea, have maintained functional diplomatic channels with Pyongyang and other major parties.

This potentially puts the regional grouping in a unique and consequential position to gradually steer the protagonists away from direct conflict and in favor of meaningful dialogue. Without a collective independent position, many in the grouping acknowledge, the region runs the risk of sleepwalking into an apocalyptic conflict.

Whether Asean can overcome its recent internal divisions to play that role is a wild card. The association’s guiding principle of “non-interference” and almost cult-like deference to notions of “national sovereignty” has badly undercut the grouping’s ability to shape events and manage crises even within its member nations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the regional body’s founding, though few are celebrating what amounts to one of the grouping’s most abysmal years. Under the Philippines’ chairmanship, Asean has struggled not only to build consensus on the South China Sea territorial disputes, with a now isolated Vietnam insisting on tougher language against China, but also on the humanitarian calamity unfolding in Myanmar.

People rally near the Myanmar embassy during a protest against the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims minority by the Myanmar government in Jakarta, Indonesia September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside
Indonesians rally against the Myanmar government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslim minority at Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta, September 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Asean has miserably failed to forge an effective response to address the mass exodus of Rohingya people from Myanmar into Bangladesh, now estimated at over 500,000 refugees, amid a brutal military crackdown the United Nations has said amounts to “ethnic cleansing.”

Opposed views on the issue have dangerously split the association on communal and religious lines, raising spill over risks for the wider region. In late September Asean released a joint statement on the Rohingya crisis that Malaysia openly sought to “disassociate” with due to the grouping’s alleged “misrepresentation of the reality.”

The Asean chairman’s statement “condemned the attacks against Myanmar security forces” and “all acts of violence”, a characterization Malaysia told issue with because it failed to mention the “Rohingyas as one of the affected communities.” Malaysia is already home to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees driven by previous Myanmar purges.

The rising internal dispute raises hard questions about whether Asean is positioned to take a lead role in brokering the Korean Peninsula crisis. While the association has long prided itself on taking a middle road in crisis situations, without a renewed show of unity and concerted diplomatic effort the grouping risks irrelevance in managing a crisis the collective region desperately needs to avert.