Sat, 22 Mar 2003

Indonesia and the North Korean crisis: Is there a role for ARF?

No role for Indonesia in Korean peninsula

Paulo Gorjao Lecturer Lusiada University Portugal

During the recent Australia-Indonesia Ministerial Forum held in Jakarta, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer sought Indonesian support for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) Regional Forum to debate possible ways to solve the North Korean Crisis. According to Downer, the main ASEAN' Regional Forum (ARF) advantage is the fact that North Korea is one of the participants since 2001. Consequently, Downer thinks that ARF might allow at least some "progress on the issue of North Korea".

Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Marty Natalegawa concurred with Downer, and said that Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirayuda shared the view that ARF should take a leading role since "the disputing parties are all members". But is the idea workable? And about Indonesia itself what role it can play to end the crisis in Korean Peninsula?

Jakarta has been following events between Pyongyang and Washington since the nuclear crisis escalated in late January. In February, Indonesia sent a special envoy, the veteran Ambassador Nana Sutresna, in a fact-finding mission to North Korea. Sutresna held talks with North Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Paek Nam- sun on the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and also delivered a personal letter from Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il offering help to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, he also met the North Korean ceremonial head of state, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong-nam.

Following his meetings in Pyongyang, Sutresna traveled to Seoul to inform South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Choi Sung- hong of the outcome of his visit. As he had done in Pyongyang, Sutresna also offered Seoul Indonesia's help to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

While acknowledging Jakarta's willingness to help, North Korea kept insisting on direct talks with the United States to resolve the crisis, and no substantive output was achieved as a result of Sutresna's meetings in Pyongyang.

Also in February, and in order to further pressure North Korea, Megawati met Paek Nam-sun in Kuala Lumpur one day before the beginning of the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Malaysia. Once again, Megawati offered Indonesia's help to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea kept rejecting it.

Despite increasing pressure from several countries (but not from China, which is by far its greatest political and economic supporter) North Korea refused thus far any multilateral approach as mechanism for negotiations and keeps saying that only bilateral talks with the United States will solve the crisis. In turn, and despite some senior state officials' contradictory statements, Washington continues rejecting bilateral talks with Pyongyang as the first step. As an alternative to bilateral talks, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed a "P5-plus-5 Framework", which would put at the same table the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Australia, the European Union, Japan, and the two Koreas.

North Korea thus far has not accepted this multilateral mechanism for negotiations, and at this stage DEPLU is fully aware that it will be extremely difficult to make Pyongyang state officials change their minds concerning possible alternatives to bilateral talks with the United States without more pressure from Beijing.

Yet, the United States cool response and lack of urgency, the truth is that North Korea must be diplomatically dealt with at once, and it does not seem likely that ARF will fulfill a relevant role as far as the solution of the crisis is concerned. Several reasons seem to contribute to this assessment.

Indeed, the major players (China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States) are ARF participants. However, the table is too big and heterogeneous. The United States certainly will not accept to be pressured by countries such as Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, or Vietnam. In other words, ARF does not have the right size or composition. ARF include not only the major players but also players from a different and lower league.

Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that Washington will react more positively to private bilateral contacts with state officials from countries such China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Private bilateral contacts are potentially more fruitful than will be the public multilateral approach provided by ARF.

Therefore, it remains unexplained the motive why the Indonesian Government thinks that North Korea, which has been thus far highly resistant to multilateral approaches, will be willing to accept this multilateral mechanism as a possible impasse-breaking device. This is even more astounding bearing in mind that thus far ARF has not yet played any sort of meaningful role in this crisis, as well as in prior Asian crises.

Ironically, there are already more countries and international institutions seeking to play a role than direct parties in the crisis. As usual, those actors with more political and economic power will probably prevail since they have bigger carrots and sticks.

Unfortunately, Indonesia has not yet fully recovered from the economic crisis as well as from the political transition. Thus, once it was rejected Indonesia's initial offer to play a mediator role in the crisis, and since ARF is not a credible player, this means that Jakarta has lost its diplomatic window of opportunity.

The writer is Visiting fellow in November/December 2002 at the Australian Defense Studies Center