North Korea signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008 when Singapore was the ASEAN chair. Pyongyang’s ascension was a special occasion as it was the first time it has joined an accord regarding regional code of conduct—something rare in this country’s annals of diplomatic relations.
North Korea has diplomatic ties with all ASEAN members, most of them last more than 40 years. Only Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, the rest has residential missions in Beijing. During the Cambodian conflict (1978-1993), North Korea and ASEAN often featured in the news headlines because the head of Khmer resistance forces, King Norodom Sihanouk, had a residence in Pyongyang. He often spoke from there.
During the first quarter of 2015, North Korea dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song to tour seven members of ASEAN to strengthen ties and break away from isolation imposed by the international community.
Thailand and North Korea currently are commemorating their 40th anniversary of their relations with high-level visits and exchanges of cultural troupes. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former Secretary General of ASEAN, was instrumental in persuading North Korea to join the ASEAN Reform Forum (ARF) in 2000 during the chairmanship of Thailand. "I have to send a Thai delegate to meet the Pyongyang delegation in Cuba during a NAM meeting,” he confided.
In an interview, Dr. Surin revealed that North Korea wanted to have more friends in international arenas to help defend them against the Western countries. Since 2006, North Korea has been under the financial and economic sanctions mandated by the United Nation Security Council’s different resolutions for violation agreements on nuclear tests as well as cyber-attacks in the US.
Of late, it is an open secret that North Korean also wants to become less depending on China, due to the current strain of their bilateral relations.
Since the Korean Peninsula situation has been discussed every time at the ARF after it was established in Bangkok in 1995, it was necessary to admit North Korea in the forum as a conflicting party. To do that, North Korea has to take active role in taking part in the discussion of regional and international situation.
At the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in April, North Korea expressed the interest to become a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN. At the moment, a long list of countries wanting to join the grouping as dialogue partners including Ecuador, Brazil and Mexico. ASEAN has currently imposed a moratorium on the dialogue partners.
While ASEAN and North Korea have close ties, the grouping has expressed concerns over the issue of nuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula, which can impact on peace and stability in the region. ASEAN has called on the resumption of six-party talks, which was suspended in 2006. In the ASEAN statement at the end of East Asia Summit, ASEAN often calls for the dialogue.
ASEAN has been very careful in maintaining its neutrality in the crisis in the Korean Peninsula for fear of upsetting North Korea.