WHILE on an official visit to the Republic of Korea (ROK) early this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano issued a statement urging the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) – the official name of North Korea – to call off its plan to conduct more ballistic missile test launches following the missile that flew over Japan before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. He added that the Philippines and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) would continue to play a constructive role in creating peace and stability not only in the Korean Peninsula but also in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
The Philippines is the present chairman of Asean as the organization celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding. Our country’s involvement in the Korean Peninsula has been a longstanding hallmark of Philippine foreign policy. Our expeditionary force joined the UN-led multinational command that defended democracy in the peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953), which ended in an armistice.
We were, at the same time, an active and consistent advocate for the establishment of peace and stability in the area. The Philippines was the fifth country that recognized and established diplomatic relations with ROK in 1949. After a quarter century of eyeing each other across a gulf of ideological differences, the Philippines and the DPRK established diplomatic relations almost 50 years after the Korean War ended and 10 years after the demise of the Cold War.
Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon, Jr. and DPRK Ambassador to Thailand Jo In-chol signed the joint communique formalizing the ties at a ceremony held on July 12, 2000 at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City. The five-paragraph document declared the establishment of relations at ambassadorial level on the basis of mutual respect for domestic laws, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs – the major principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The two countries also agreed to abide by “international agreements to which both parties are parties,” including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). (North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003.)
The signing of the joint communique was the culmination of almost 25 years of delicate negotiations between the Philippines and the hermitic totalitarian state. The overtures started in the 1970s and meandered through the 1980s without significant progress, stymied as the talks were by the Philippines’ traditional anti-communist stance and suspicions about North Korean support for the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army (NPA).
The window of opportunity for Manila-Pyongyang rapprochement came in 1999 when North Korea emerged from its isolation and started diversifying its relations with other states. DPRK established diplomatic relations with Italy in January 2000, followed by the restoration of disrupted tries with Australia in May. The foreign ministers of the Philippines and the DPRK met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 1999 to discuss improvement of relations. Subsequently, the two officials met during the 13th conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Colombia in April 2000 where they agreed in principle to establish diplomatic ties.
The formalization of relations ended almost 50 years of icy relations that started with North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and the Philippine participation in the Korean War where Filipino soldiers fought side by side with South Korean, American and troops of other allied nations of the UN Command against the North Korean People’s Army.
Both the ROK and the United States expressed support for the diplomatic breakthrough as this would bring North Korea into the international political mainstream. South Korea welcomed the development as perfectly in accord with then President Kim Dae-jung’s “Comprehensive Engagement Policy towards North Korea,” popularly known as the Sunshine Policy. It was implemented from 1998 up to 2008 during the presidency of Kim and his successor Roh Moo-hyun. This engagement policy led to the epoch-making Summit in Pyongyang between Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000. It was because of the Sunshine Policy that Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2000.
As chairman of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1998, the Philippines initiated the process of securing the membership of the DPRK in the forum but the latter indicated that the Asean member countries, such as Brunei and the Philippines, which did not have inter-state relations with North Korea, should establish such relations first before Pyongyang could give due consideration to its participation in the ARF. Brunei did in January 1999 and the Philippines followed suit six months after. North Korea was formally admitted as the 23rd member of the ARF at its meeting in Bangkok in July 2000. Until then, North Korea was the only country covered by the geographical footprint of the ARF which was not a member. The ARF has remained as the only existing forum for political and security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Its present 27 members include the 10 Asean member states and the 10 Asean dialogue partners (the US, Russia, China, Japan, EU, ROK, India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
‘Sunshine Policy’ unravels
As Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs (July 1997-May 1999). I wrote the position paper embodying the rationale for North Korea’s admission as a member of the ARF. I also assisted in the preparation of the DFA’s position paper that served a useful purpose for the normalization of relations between the Philippines and North Korea. Therefore, while serving as the Philippine Ambassador to ROK from 1999 to 2003, I was then of the fondest hope that the atmosphere and conditions conducive to a new era in the Korean Peninsula existed. But my hopes were dashed by the unraveling of the Sunshine Policy.
A few months after it happened, the Pyongyang Summit in 2000 became shrouded in mystery and credible conjecture. Hyundai, ROK’s foremost chaebol or conglomerate whose founder, Chung Ju-yung, was born in North Korea, was in the center of this controversy. Its multi-million business deals with North Korea were associated with the Summit, i.e., the Summit was “bought”. Chung Mong-hun, the Hyundai founder’s fifth son and prime business mover of the policy of reconciliation with the North, committed suicide in August 2003. The controversy haunted Kim Dae-jung’s presidency until the end of his term in February 2003.
North Korea manifested its belligerent attitude in a number of instances that President George W. Bush named it as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. The three countries were accused of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to own weapons of mass destruction.
Roh Moo-hyun continued the Sunshine Policy although the issue of the North’s possession of nuclear weapons surfaced again with both North Korea and the US accusing each other of breaching the Agreed Framework. Nevertheless, Roh held a Summit with Kim Jong–il in Pyongyang in October 2007. Inter-Korean relationship hit a gridlock when Lee Myung-bak succeeded Rohin 2008. Lee revealed in his book that North Korea had requested for a summit five times during his term which ended in 2013 but there were always preconditions.
Evidently, South Korea had been too generous and accommodating to the North but not getting any reciprocal benefits from the latter. Pyongyang’s admission that it was pursuing a nuclear program and the subsequent expulsion of (International Atomic Energy (IAEA) inspectors and the DPRK’s withdrawal from the NPT left the Sunshine Policy in tatters. In November 2010, ROK’s Unification Ministry officially declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, thus bringing it to its end.
Nuclear weapons program
North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program has been the cause of distress and tension in the Korean Peninsula in particular and even in the world in general. The tension has become more pronounced ever since the assumption to power of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s second son, in December 2011. The exchange of provocative and aggressive words between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump has placed the world on tenterhooks, giving the impression that war is ominous. Although Kim had officially stated that North Korea “would not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade our own sovereignty,” he is perceived to be intractable and unpredictable. Tension in the Korean Peninsula has been of great concern to the Philippines because, according to Wikipedia, there are over 63,000 Filipinos in South Korea.
Diplomacy appears to be the key to the peaceful resolution of the problem on the Korean Peninsula. The Six-Party Talks were initiated in 2003 as an offshoot of North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT. Its principal aim is to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapon program. The talks involved the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. Five rounds of meetings had been held from 2003 to 2007 but an impasse was reached in April 2009 when North Korea declared that it would pull out of the talks and resume its nuclear enrichment program. Unless China, the North’s closest ally and supporter, can exert a persuasive influence on Pyongyang, peace will remain elusive.