While much of the world aims to keep North Korea at a diplomatic arm’s length, Indonesia can’t seem to get close enough to the isolated but emerging nuclear nation.
Rooted in a legendary friendship between the two countries’ founding fathers, Indonesia has bucked the global trend enforced by punitive United Nations and United Nations sanctions and looked to fill the diplomatic vacuum by extending a helping hand.
Indonesia and North Korea share a history rooted in the Non-Aligned Movement, established in 1961 as a group of states that formally aligned with or against any major power bloc.
Indonesia’s founding father and first president Sukarno hosted Kim Il-sung during that contest during the 1960s, with part of the visit including a tour of the Bogor Botanical Garden. After Kim expressed his admiration for one of its orchids, Sukarno famously named the newly bred flower after him.
The so-named Kimilsungia orchid has since become a powerful and beautiful symbol in North Korea, which to this day often features prominently in state-made flower arrangements.
Under dictator Suharto, who rose to power in a 1967 coup, Indonesia quietly moved closer to the US and South Korea even as Jakarta remained host to the Non-Aligned Movement’s headquarters. Despite that lean, Indonesia never formally severed ties with North Korea.
Indonesia’s historic ties to North Korea were reaffirmed under president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno who visited Pyongyang in 2002 to build relations with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in the spirit of the friendship their fathers enjoyed.
Megawati’s visit came at a fraught time after then US president George W Bush confrontationally tagged North Korea in a 2002 speech as part of an “axis of evil” that supported global terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry reported that Megawati tried to encourage the isolated Kim Jong-il to engage more with its southern neighbors, though the friendly diplomatic overture was light on substance once she returned to Jakarta.
Yet the Sukarno family, now in de facto government control with Megawati’s leadership of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), has remained determined to maintain links between the two countries and play up the importance of North Korea’s role in the Non-Alignment Movement amid US President Donald Trump’s earlier bid to sever all regional ties to Pyongyang.
Megawati’s sister and Sukarno’s daughter, Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, baffled much of the world in 2015 when her Sukarno Education Foundation awarded current North Koran leader Kim Jong-un with its “Star of Sukarno” peace prize for global statesmanship.
That same year, North Korea faced intense international scrutiny over its perennial poor human rights record amid new reports of prison camps and state executions.
Still, Rachmawati said Kim Jong-un was deserving of the prize “for his fight against neo-colonialist imperialism.” Speaking to Agence France Presse, she denied reports of North Korean state abuses as mere “Western propaganda”, while adding that Western governments “like to put ugly labels on North Korea.”
He was not the first Kim to receive the Star of Sukarno: Rachmawati posthumously awarded Kim Il-sung in 2001. The announcement likewise drew criticism and bafflement from international and local media, but Rachmawati has maintained Kim Jong-un is a great leader to his people in much the same way her independence hero father was to Indonesians.
The familial thread has reached its third generation in Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs Puan Maharani, another of Megawati’s daughters. Puan was dispatched to Pyongyang in late July to extend a personal invitation to North Korea to attend this month’s Asian Games held in Indonesia.
While she did not meet with Kim Jong-un, instead meeting President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam, it is notable and diplomatically significant that she was the steering committee member that made the personal invitation.
The timing proved prescient. Days after Maharani touched down in Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) members in Singapore as part of a regional trip to drum up support to pressure North Korea into giving up its WMD.
The meeting came just months of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in the neighboring city state to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Indonesia and North Korea have a long established historical relationship, but its reemergence now is indicative of changes in Indonesian foreign policy priorities and broader diplomatic shifts within the region.
While the US and China tussle for influence in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is increasingly attempting to assert itself as a middle power playing a mediator role in regional and world affairs.
This is strikingly clear in the case of North Korea, says Hoo Chiew Ping, a senior lecturer in Asean and the Koreas at the National University of Malaysia.
Hoo says a delegation of former diplomats, academics and government officials, led by former Indonesian ambassador to the US Dino Patti Djalal, traveled to Pyongyang in April in a clear sign of Jakarta’s desire to stay close to the isolated state at a time the US and North Korea were volleying nuclear war threats.
“That move by Joko Widodo shows the eagerness of Indonesia to play a leading role in forging cordial relations with North Korea,” she said, adding that Singapore has been reluctantly forced into a similar role but has done well so far in fulfilling expectations.
The high-profile assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, in a brazen attack in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2016 demonstrated Indonesia’s unwillingness to strain those bilateral relations.
That’s despite the fact that an Indonesian national faces the death penalty in a bizarre case involving a highly toxic nerve agent banned by the United Nations as a WMD.
Hanoi has responded strongly that it’s national is a scapegoat for what has all the hallmarks of a North Korean state-sponsored hit. Indonesia has offered support to its national, a domestic helper who claims she thought she was involved in a prank, but has not taken as forceful a position on the ongoing trial.
Indonesia’s interest in staying engaged with North Korea cannot be wholly attributed to waning US influence in the region, says Jeffrey Robertson, a political analyst and associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Instead, he says, the moves are just as reflective of the warming trend in ties between the North and South. “The current South Korean government is of course strongly supportive of interacting with North Korea,” he said. “Accordingly, Indonesia’s interaction with North Korea may increase if South-North reconciliation continues – and US and UN sanctions are reduced.”
It’s not just Indonesia that is looking towards North Korea, academic Hoo notes. “Asean has failed to strike a balance between the US and China when it comes to issues like the South China Sea and the Belt and Road investments,” Hoo says, referring to China’s increasingly controversial US$1 trillion infrastructure-building initiative.
“North Korea would be the only global issue that we are comfortable in having our own way, given the long standing bilateral relations that all member states shared with North Korea,” Hoo said.