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Korean thaw will have Asean impact - Kavi Chongkittavorn

It was amazing to watch South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un make their historic handshake and then hug and share smiles on Friday at Panmunjom, the truce village located in the Demilitarised Zone that separates the two Koreas. From now on, the simmering tension on the Korean Peninsula, which the world has become used to over the last 65 years, may quickly fade away. The two Koreas have pledged to cease hostilities and cooperate in their denuclearisation efforts.


The two leaders' respective body language, especially their leisurely stroll and discussion, indicated that they got along well and shared a common desire for their divided countries to live in peace, harmony and of course to be reunited in the future. President Moon told reporters that both he and Mr Kim declared there would not be a war on the peninsula, and that a new era of peace is beginning.

Coming hot on the heels of the Asean summit in Singapore on Saturday, Asean leaders were quick to welcome the outcome of the inter-Korean summit. In a joint statement, Asean foreign ministers said they were encouraged by these positive developments and urged all parties concerned to work toward reducing tension in the region, as well as the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the peninsula, which will contribute to peace and stability in the region. It was the first positive statement from Asean on the situation in the peninsula since 2011.

After the end of their summit, Asean leaders also welcomed recent diplomatic activities that aim to reduce tension and work toward a peaceful resolution of the situation on the peninsula. Now they await the summit between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim. The outcome could lead to a permanent peace treaty in the near future.

The rapprochement will have a positive impact on Asean integration, as well as promoting peace and stability in the region. First of all, it would allow South Korea, which has long been focusing on the North's denuclearisation, to zero in on its "New Southern Policy" toward the region. For the past two decades, South Korea's approach toward Asean has been one-dimensional, dwelling on the group's opposition to North Korea's activities.

That explains why Asean's ties with South Korea are not as dynamic as those with China and Japan. It has only been in recent years that South Korea has been playing catch-up and making a more concerted effort to strengthen multi-dimensional ties with Asean. Under President Moon, Seoul has paid more attention to its northern neighbour's strategic value. Last September, Asean Culture House in Busan was opened to showcase South Korea's determination and commitment to working closely with Asean at all levels and in all fields.

Second, an inter-Korean thaw would further strengthen relations between the Southeast Asian nations and three East Asian countries, namely, China, Japan and South Korea through the Asean Plus Three (APT) agreement. The North Korea issue used to be a divisive one among Asean and its three dialogue partners from East Asia. With the prospect of peace on the peninsula, there will be closer cooperation among the APT members. As such, the long-awaited aspiration of building a truly East Asian community could now become a reality.

Third, North Korea's profile within the regional scheme of things would be further upgraded. For instance, its participation in the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) would be more meaningful now that it has become one of the peace builders in the region after decades of acting like a warmonger.

Since joining the ARF in 2000, Pyongyang's record in the region-wide security platform has not exactly been laudable, but that could change after the Panmunjom Declaration. As a signatory of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2008, Pyongyang's commitment to peace and denuclearisation augur well with the code of conduct of the TAC.

The ARF could be transformed into a platform for further confidence-building beyond the peninsula to include the Indo-Pacific region.

Fourth, North Korea's peace and denuclearisation efforts should pave the way for Pyongyang to join the broader economic network and communities in the region, whether within Asean, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), or other economic cooperative frameworks including the stalled South Korea-Russia Railway project. Back in 2003, there was a suggestion to invite North Korea to join Apec when Thailand played host, but the idea did not fly.

If any tangible progress is made in the denuclearisation efforts by North Korea, it is also possible that Pyongyang could be admitted as a sectoral dialogue partner of Asean as an incentive to engage the hermit kingdom. Tourism, trade and investment are three areas that North Korea would prioritise. In the near future, this would allow North Korea to be part of broad connectivity plans in the region.

Obviously, the jury is still out regarding North Korea's denuclearisation pledge.

Indeed, the two Koreas still have much homework to do, especially in terms of the practical steps that must be put in place to make complete denuclearisation a reality. Time will tell whether Mr Kim, known to be a brutal leader not averse to purging his relatives, has changed for the better.

For now, let's just hope for peace.