A succession of nuclear and missile tests and vocal response from its neighbors and the US put the spotlight back again on one of the world’s most enduring flashpoints, the Korean Peninsula. The heated US-DPRK verbal exchanges of threats and Pyongyang’s resolve to push through with its nuclear and missile program despite tightening international sanctions raise serious concern about potential conflict with catastrophic consequences. The conduct of annual US-ROK military exercises in spite of the tense atmosphere, US pronouncements that all options (including military) are on the table, and dispatch of military assets in the area are matched by DPRK’s defiance demonstrated by accelerating the pace and intensity of its nuclear and missile program. All these feed into a deadly spiral that needs to be de-escalated soonest. Recognizing the high stakes involved, the international community began to express deep concern on the issue. Countries bordering DPRK and which have long been engaged in efforts to denuclearize the peninsula, notably ROK, China, Japan, and Russia, along with US, began to undertake measures to tackle the issue, although divergence on how best to proceed with the same is apparent.


Photo from ASEAN 2017

Although not as proximate, Southeast Asia, which includes US security allies that houses American troops and assets, is within the range of DPRK missiles, which according to Pyongyang are now even able to hit targets as far away as Guam and even mainland US. Thus, Southeast Asia made the developments in the Korean Peninsula one of the key regional and international issues discussed in the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Manila last August 5, 2017. In fact, the recent round of missile tests conducted by DPRK came in third after the South China Sea and violent extremism, terrorism and radicalization indicating the high importance attached by the regional bloc on the matter. Philippines, one of the original members of ASEAN and this year’s ASEAN Summit host, presided over such meetings and, as such, have a hand in shepherding the Association to come up with a common stand on the issue. With a firebrand and unorthodox leader at the helm known for breaking longstanding traditions (e.g. downgrading US security ties, expanding economic ties with China, considering security ties with China and Russia) in his quest for an independent foreign policy, how does Philippines see the issue and what are its interests on the same? What role can it play, if any, in keeping stability in a region known as the engine of global growth and development, but which is long haunted by unresolved disputes such as this one?

The Cold War has deeply colored Philippine relations with the two Koreas. In 1950, Philippines sent an expeditionary force of 1,468 troops to fight under the United Nations Command during the Korean War. It was the first time for the country, as an independent republic, to send combat troops to fight in a foreign land. For five years that the war raged, 7,420 Filipino soldiers fought under the UN for ROK. Future distinguished leaders of the country served during this war, including former President Fidel Ramos and former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., the husband of former President Corazon Aquino and father to a son who will also became President (Benigno Aquino III). Sen. Aquino was then a young media correspondent covering the war. Deep-seated political, ideological and military linkages with ROK was, thus, forged in the context of the Cold War with Filipino soldiers fighting alongside US, South Korea and other UN allies in a bid to repel North Korea’s invasion, which was, in turn, supported by China and the Soviet Union. Philippines was one of the first countries to recognized ROK in 1949, while being the last Asian country to establish relations with DPRK in protracted negotiations that took 20 years in the making. This sets the country apart from its Southeast Asian neighbors and fellow ASEAN members.

Except for Vietnam which was among the first to recognize DPRK as early as 1950 and Brunei which just establish formal ties with the communist state in 1999, all other Southeast Asian countries have opened diplomatic relations with DPRK in the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the Non-Aligned Movement as Third World countries aspire to carve neutrality and autonomy from US-Soviet Union/China Cold War rivalry. In fact, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar established diplomatic relations with DPRK even before they joined ASEAN. Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam have embassies in Pyongyang and DPRK, in turn, have embassies in the respective capitals of these ASEAN countries, as well as in Myanmar and Thailand. In contrast, Philippines and DPRK have yet to exchange embassies, with Philippines only having a non-resident ambassador based in Beijing and DPRK represented in the Philippines through its embassy in Bangkok. Thus, while most ASEAN states have longstanding ties with DPRK, with some having cordial, economically beneficial and even positive views towards DPRK, Philippines, one of Asia’s pioneer democracies, have traditionally viewed DPRK in Cold War prism.

Like other countries in Southeast Asia that feared the spread of communism (the “Domino Theory”) supported by patron states like China and the Soviet Union, Philippines long limited its interface with non-democratic states. Overtures with the socialist camp, in fact, came only after the Sino-US rapprochement in early 1970s. For the most part, Philippines had followed US-ROK lead in its relations with DPRK, a bond forged in war which saw Filipino troop casualties. Since the Korean War is technically not officially over, with only an armistice signed, Philippines, as a staunch ally of US and ROK, seem not to have let its guard down. Nevertheless, despite the cold and long non-existent formal relations on the state-to-state level, the Spring 2017 Pew Research Global Attitudes Survey revealed that 53 percent of the Filipino public hold a generally “favorable” view of DPRK, the highest in the Asia-Pacific region, although the same survey also showed that 60 percent of Filipinos are “very concerned” with DPRK’s weapons development.

In contrast to a late and limited interaction with DPRK, Philippines’ ties with ROK is longstanding and robust. Philippines is the fifth country to recognize ROK in 1949 and the first ASEAN country to do so. Since then, relations have developed and broadened to include far ranging fields - security, economic, cultural and people-to-people linkages. Both Philippines and ROK have mutual defense treaties with the US. There are also historical parallels between the two countries, having both experienced authoritarian dictatorships before the restoration of democracy. ROK is a major security partner and arms supplier for the Philippines, having donated and sold fighter aircraft and ships, as well as small arms. Economically, ROK is an important trade partner and investor to the Philippines. It is the country’s eighth largest foreign market and fifth largest import source (2016) and is the largest foreign tourist market with 1.48 million Koreans visiting the country in 2016. People-to-people linkages are also strong. Close to 60,000 Filipinos are residing and working in Korea (2013) sending USD220 million cash remittances (2016) back home.

Philippines, on the other hand, plays host to the second largest Korean diaspora community in Southeast Asia after Vietnam with 90,000 Koreans residing, working or studying in the country, including those learning English language. Should conflict broke out again in the peninsula, this big Korean overseas community can get swamped, only this time around not by entrepreneurs, investors and tourists, but by refugees. Such conflict will pose tremendous risk to thousands of Filipino workers, students and residents in Korea, requiring the country to draw contingency evacuation plans and measures to reintegrate them back home. The conflict would also mean the loss of a major trade partner and would contribute to overall regional instability. A secure, stable and prosperous Korea is, therefore, in the interest of the Philippines and two factors that can greatly contribute to this are harmonious inter-Korea relations and favorable geopolitical climate between and among Korea and its key powerful neighbors and partners China, US, Japan and Russia.

Philippines’ concern with the brewing Korean crisis arises from strong security and economic impetus. Escalation of tensions may divert attention away from economics into security at a time when economies in the region, including that of the Philippines, are rising fast and are becoming more integrated economically and connected physically through various regional infrastructure connectivity projects. The rotational presence of US troops and military assets in the country, through the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and related military agreements, may also make it a legitimate target of North Korean missiles, thus risking collateral damage. Philippines has some trade with DPRK but this is negligible compared to its trade with ROK and Manila will not risk possible sanctions from US, its third largest trade partner, just to continue business with Pyongyang. The country is also within the path of DPRK missiles intended for Guam, Hawaii or mainland US and inaccuracies or misses may inadvertently hit the country. A missile that may fall in waters in or near the country may also expose the country to a potential tsunami triggered by underwater explosion. To this, it must be noted that in April 2012, the country sent its biggest navy ship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to northwestern Luzon to be on standby as reports have it that possible debris of DPRK missiles may fall down in waters near the country’s biggest island. On its way, the ship received news of Chinese fishermen engaged in illegal fishing practices in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal (off Zambales in central Luzon) and, being the asset closest to the area, responded to the report. The attempted arrest of these Chinese fishermen triggered a standoff that led the country to initiate arbitration proceedings against China in 2013. Hence, the contingency to mitigate the threat posed by possible DPRK missile fragments had precipitated a serious diplomatic crisis between Philippines and China which only cooled down with the assumption of President Rodrigo Duterte in power last year.

For long, Philippine policy towards DPRK’s nuclear and missile development program had lean more towards the US-ROK line. However, in recent years, it appears that the country has come to close ranks more with ASEAN and its host position this year will only serve to heighten this affinity. The visit of a high-level DPRK diplomatic delegation in July prior to the August ASEAN Regional Forum was seen as an effort to possibly influence the country to be less critical of DPRK as it hosts the important security forum that groups together 27 countries, including the two Koreas and key regional players Australia, China, Japan, India, Russia and USA, among others. But considering the prior controversy arising from alleged DPRK involvement in the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur airport and continued DPRK missile tests, such overtures had not been accommodated. Philippines, like other ASEAN members, conduct some trade with DPRK and, as such, had been persuaded by US to cooperate in isolating and enforcing sanctions to cripple the financing that feeds the communist state’s nuclear ambitions. However, since its inception, ASEAN has always preferred dialogue and continued engagement over diplomatic isolation and had largely refrained from taking sides on sensitive issues and disputes. ASEAN, for instance, remains mute on the issue of the Rohingyas involving its member Myanmar and continue to be divided on how best to deal with China over the South China Sea. Given this, it is possible that ASEAN engagement with DPRK will not completely cease, although weak ASEAN-DPRK ties may make it more susceptible to external pressure should US decide to up the ante against the North. Having said this, it must also be noted that some variances in US and ROK position in dealing with DPRK is surfacing. While DPRK’s nuclear and missile capability poses a distant threat to US, it is a far more existential threat for ROK due to proximity. Hence, the exchange of fiery rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington deeply concerns Seoul. To this, President Duterte advised President Trump not to be baited by DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un in the brinkmanship game. It is interesting to hear such unsolicited advice from a leader who is also known for his equally brash language and is also critical of Kim Jong-Un.

In the recently concluded 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, Philippines joins the chorus of ASEAN in expressing grave concern over the escalation of tensions in Korea brought about by DPRK’s recent round of missile tests, noting that “these developments seriously threaten peace and stability in the entire region and beyond”. Furthermore, ASEAN “strongly urged the DPRK to fully and immediately comply with its obligations arising from all the relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.” The Association also reiterated support for “the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner and called for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue in order to de-escalate tensions and create conditions conducive to peace and stability.” A nuclear-armed DPRK may trigger an arms race as ROK and Japan may commence their own nuclear programs to deter possible threat from the North. The Association also “expressed support for initiatives to improve inter-Korean relations towards establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” The same sentiments were echoed in the ASEAN Chairman’s (Philippines) Statement. These statements suggest ASEAN preference to still work within UN-sanctioned measures in dealing with the situation, a possible reference against potential unilateral attempts to undertake regime change. Stressing the importance of inter-Korean dialogue also suggests the underlying belief that cordial relations between the two Koreas remains a key cornerstone in managing, if not permanently, resolving this recurring flashpoint. For now, as things stand, President Duterte’s emerging bias for an Asia policy will likely support this direction.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is is a consultant of the University of the Philippines Korea Research Center and a lecturer at the School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University.

*Originally published in Italian text by Limes, Italian Review of Geopolitics 6/10/2017