Making a Habit of Dialogue: Civil Society’s Role in Peacebuilding in Northeast Asia
Meri Joyce, Regional Liaison Officer, GPPAC Northeast Asia / International Coordinator, Peace Boat
Supporting the firm belief in civil society’s potential to play a vital role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, this paper will reflect upon the experience of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Northeast Asia (GPPAC-NEA) in developing a collaborative network of civil society in the region. Reflecting upon the state of civil society in Northeast Asia, it will consider both challenges and progress, and particularly, will outline the experience of the dialogue known as the Ulaanbaatar Process, launched by GPPAC-NEA and its Ulaanbaatar Focal Point, the Mongolian NGO Blue Banner, in 2015.
The role of civil society in peacebuilding and dialogue
While traditionally seen as the realm for governments, the recognition of the vital role of civil society in conflict prevention and peacebuilding has emerged and continued to grow in recent years. It was on this very premise that the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) was founded in 2005, following the recommendation of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his 2001 report that the role of NGOs in conflict prevention should be examined and enhanced.[i] Here, the then Secretary-General recognized that “NGOs can contribute to the maintenance of peace and security by offering non-violent avenues for addressing the root causes of conflict at an early stage. Moreover, NGOs can be an important means of conducting track II diplomacy when Governments and international organizations are unable to do so.”[ii]
In response to this call, the European Centre for Conflict Prevention (ECCP) — which later became the GPPAC Global Secretariat — initiated a process to convene civil society groups from around the world. Consultations began in 2003, and the network was officially launched at a worldwide conference held at the UN Headquarters in New York — the first civil society-led event to be convened in the General Assembly Hall. To quote GPPAC’s homepage, “from its origins as an ambitious idea of a few people to enhance and structure civil society’s efforts to prevent violent conflict and strengthen peacebuilding efforts, GPPAC has grown into an active global network. It encompasses fifteen regions, enabling a concerted effort of many committed organisations and people working together to reflect on, improve and implement civil society strategies for conflict prevention and peacebuilding worldwide.”[iii] The network’s activities now focus on enabling collaboration, improving practice and influencing policy, encompassing work on local, regional and global levels.[iv]
As the nature of conflicts evolved from traditional inter-state conflicts prevalent in previous centuries to complex, interconnected cross-border security challenges, it opened a space for civil society contribution — a space that had until then been difficult to enter when following a state-centered security approach. Civil society in general and GPPAC in particular have played an important role in reframing peace and security concerns, such as climate change, food and water security, migration and the refugee crisis, under the chapeau of human security, thus calling for creative, human-centered and multilateral approaches for resolution of these challenges. The nature of these new concerns are not addressable by force or military means, but require new methods of dialogue and cooperation — an area in which the approach and expertise of GPPAC have a key contribution to make.
As mentioned above, the role of civil society in dialogue processes is also becoming better appreciated, particularly in situations where government-level dialogue is impossible or has reached an impasse. Such initiatives have made significant contributions over the past century, from the Cold War examples of ping-pong diplomacy, and scientists’ dialogue across the Iron Curtain led by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, who “during the darkest days of the Cold War… understood the dangers of nuclear weapons [and] in their efforts to change dangerous policies became pioneers of a new kind of transnational, “track II” dialogue.”[v] This has also been seen in recent years, where sustained Track II dialogue contributed significantly to recent developments in relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as with Iran. Such experiences have demonstrated that “civil society has a particular added value in convening and facilitating dialogue processes to reach a point where derogatory images of wrongness no longer overshadow the needs of the opposing sides.”[vi]
This approach has been at the heart of GPPAC since its foundation. A significant number of member organizations around the world are active in employing dialogue and mediation “as a means for conflict prevention, to decrease tensions during the conflict, or as a tool for reconciliation in a post-conflict context.”[vii] An inter-regional working group dedicated to sharing experiences and tools for Dialogue & Mediation has been established within the GPPAC network, with members engaging in diverse initiatives including Cuba-United States academic workshops, the Istanbul Process to rebuild Georgia-Russia relations, dialogue work between Serbs and Albanians in Serbia and Kosovo, and mediation for grassroots reconciliation in Maluku, Indonesia. GPPAC-NEA has benefited greatly from the expertise of members from other regions. In fact, the launch of a GPPAC publication focusing on these case studies was held in Pyongyang in June 2015, at a seminar during which representatives of numerous DPRK people’s organisations and research institutions discussed the role of civil society in peacebuilding and dialogue together with GPPAC working group members who have direct experience of the abovementioned cases.[viii]
The state of play in Northeast Asia
Dialogue in the Northeast Asia region is urgently needed, both on the governmental and civil society levels. The region remains characterized by Cold-War-era political interactions, at times charged with fierce rhetoric amid fears of military escalation. Furthermore, it lacks regional institutional mechanisms for peace and security. The Korean Peninsula has remained in an armistice system for over 60 years, without a peace treaty to end the Korean War. The absence of sustained dialogue and repeated military aggressions have heightened tensions within the Korean Peninsula and across the region.
On an official level, the Six Party Talks — launched in 2003 and involving China, the DPRK, the ROK, Russia, Japan and the US — were the closest alternative to an institutional mechanism for regional peace and security. Various rounds achieved some results, demonstrating that progress in regional engagement is possible. Yet the suspension of the Talks since 2009 and increasingly hawkish responses have left little hope for the resumption of dialogue on a governmental level. This difficult situation has been exacerbated in recent years, with provocations as seen in the continuation of the negative cycle of DPRK nuclear and missile development, joint military exercises, and the placement of strict sanctions in response.
Building cooperation and trust — the nature of and relationships between civil society in the region
Amidst such a tense regional environment, cooperation between civil society in the region has developed with difficulty. Prevailing Cold War structures mean that the fractured and often tense internal relations experienced on state level are often duplicated on the level of citizens. Furthermore, severe obstructions to communication and exchange amongst citizens within the region are in place: various countries lack diplomatic relations, such as Japan and the DPRK, and there are prohibitions for citizens of some countries from meeting with representatives from others. For example, the ROK National Security Law requires that South Korean citizens apply for prior permission from the Ministry of Unification to attend any meetings at which citizens of the DPRK are also present. There are almost no platforms within the region in which civil society from all parts of the region, including both Koreas, is regularly and actively participating. This can be said for not only areas perceived as highly sensitive such as the peace and security arena, but also for less politicized areas such as cooperation in the fields of environmental conservation, disaster mitigation, and economic development. Where regional civil society networks do exist, they tend to be centered on the trilateral partnership between the three major players of Japan, the ROK and China, without the inclusion of other members of the region.
It is precisely because of such difficulties that it is so crucial to develop more opportunities for civil society from throughout the region to interact and exchange views directly. Only through building relationships, and learning about each other’s realities and perspectives is it possible to conduct open and frank discussions which can lead to creative approaches to the challenges faced. It is for this reason that the investment of a significant proportion of time and effort on trust building is a hallmark for Track II — in contrast with official Track I processes which are by nature concerned with national interests and priorities. The necessary communication and transformations are “inextricably tied to the establishment of deep relationships of mutual trust among participants in unofficial processes. Being with the “enemy” at breakfast, in the meetings themselves, and at the bar at night, re-humanizes the conflict and helps participants recognize that they share many fears, needs, and concerns.”[ix]
The politically diverse scope of civil society and government engagement
A further complication to cooperation is that the nature of civil society is drastically different throughout the region, characterized by a diversity of systems and cultures, even within states or administrative units. GPPAC Northeast Asia’s regional steering group features membership from focal points in the nine cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Ulaanbaatar and Vladivostok, as well as regular participation from Pyongyang.[x] Perusing this list gives an indication of diversity of civil society: some cities have been the scene of vibrant democratic people’s movements bringing about significant political change, as seen through the “candle demonstrations” of Seoul in late 2016 to early 2017 which led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the birth of a new progressive government led by Moon Jae-in, while others are regularly referred to by the international media as “closed societies” or “authoritarian regimes,” such as on the other side of the Korean DMZ. Yet, even despite the presence of such active citizen-led movements, all countries of the region rend to be categorized as between “closed” to “narrowed,” according to the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2017.[xi]
The extent to which civil society is able to engage with governments, whether in constructive dialogue, policy advocacy or public appeals, differs greatly within the region, particularly when it comes to issues relating to peace and security. Even where civil society takes on a more active and prominent role within the broader society, “security” issues are often seen as out of bounds, remaining as the realm solely of governments. This tendency can be explained by various factors, including for example the heavy presence of the United States in regional security concerns. The traditional relationship between the state and citizens in the region could also be considered to play a role, with some noting that “Asian civil society’s intervention was slow in the disarmament and peace keeping issues, partly because of the Confucian tradition of giving priority to the state decision-making right.”[xii]
Let us take the field of nuclear disarmament as a point of comparison regarding civil society and government engagement. In some countries of the region, such as for example China, there are a great number of academic and research institutes which are deeply and actively involved in issues relating to nuclear disarmament, and which engage regularly and closely with government institutions on matters relating to peace and security. Yet, this is not a field in which a high number of NGOs or peace organisations are involved. In the case of Japan, regular dialogue in both structured settings and unofficial capacities takes place between members of the peace and disarmament movement, including GPPAC-NEA Regional Secretariat Peace Boat, and representatives of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as parliamentarians of various political parties. An example is the regular coordination of roundtable discussions between senior ministry officials and the Japan NGO Network for Nuclear Abolition, in which Peace Boat is a central member. Yet, despite such regular channels of information exchange, it must be said that the capacity of civil society to make an impact on government policy remains extremely limited. This can be seen through the fact that although Japan’s anti-nuclear people’s movement is one of the largest in the world, based on the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has not been able to convince the Japanese government to support the recently adopted UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, due to Japan’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella. And a final example, in which very close and positive cooperation in the field of nuclear disarmament takes place, is that of Mongolia. As a government with a strong policy to create a region free of nuclear weapons, but lacking resources and with other priorities, the Mongolian Government availed itself of the services of local NGO Blue Banner — also GPPAC Ulaanbaatar Focal Point — to promote this part of its foreign policy. Blue Banner has provided vital encouragement and support for the institutionalization of Mongolia’s single-state nuclear-weapon-free-zone status, and the complementary relationship additionally provides the foundation for stable organization of GPPAC activities in Mongolia.[xiii]
The experience of GPPAC Northeast Asia
The diversity of the regional membership lies not only in the nature of the societies and political contexts from which they come, but also in the nature and makeup of the regional process itself. The GPPAC process in Northeast Asia is a pioneering initiative, in light of its goals to forge and strengthen cross-border ties between civil society organizations, and to improve communication channels with governments that may not traditionally be responsive to civil society initiatives in the field of peace and security. The evolution of a Northeast Asian conflict prevention community — notably one that establishes a credible and coordinated regional voice on issues of peace and security, and seeks actively to engage with governments and the UN — is in itself a significant means of promoting a culture of prevention.
Reflecting the diversity of the societies from which they come, members of the GPPAC NEA Regional Steering Group also bring in a range of backgrounds. This includes representatives of grassroots civil society organizations, mass people’s movements, academic institutions, women’s groups and researchers. This variety of stakeholders even within membership of the network allows for a broad range of voices, as well as diverse approaches and perspectives. From its inception, the regional network declared that “we are working beyond borders in innovative and flexible ways to build relations of trust and cooperation, and are free from the kind of restrictions created by historical and political factors that state actors are more often held captive by.”[xiv]
Regional consultation towards the launch of the GPPAC network in Northeast Asia began in 2004, and since then, a multifaceted programme of action and research, network building and advocacy has taken shape. Through joint activities, the level of regional cooperation, trust and goodwill has been gradually nurtured, and the fledgling association has transformed into a functional and effective cross-border network. Key issues of focus, as outlined in the collaboratively developed Northeast Asia Regional Action Agenda,[xv] include the Korean peninsula issue; the threat of Japanese remilitarization; the Cross-Strait issue; and lack of historical reconciliation and understanding. The recognition of the need to overcome the past, including legacies of Japan’s past colonization and war of aggression, as a firm base for the prevention of future conflict is a fundamental common understanding of the regional network. To this end the network has engaged in various initiatives related to historical recognition, education and reconciliation.
Concrete examples of steps made over the decade since the launch of GPPAC-NEA include support for the establishment of the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI), which since 2010 is providing annual training for peace practitioners, educators and youth from around the region in the context of Northeast Asia’s specific historical and security situation;[xvi] organizing a series of exchanges between researchers and peace educators in Europe and Asia on the issue of joint history textbooks;[xvii] and coordinating regional perspectives through conferences, publications and social media to highlight the crucial role of Article 9, the peace clause of Japan’s constitution, in maintaining peace in Northeast Asia.[xviii] Such efforts are made possible through the trust built over the years as a result of sustained communication and cooperation, in combination with the interaction with other regions around the world, as well as capacity and legitimacy provided through being part of a truly global network.
The Ulaanbaatar Process: civil society dialogue for peace and stability in Northeast Asia
Building upon GPPAC’s global experience in dialogue and mediation, and the trust fostered within the regional network, GPPAC NEA launched the Ulaanbaatar Process in June 2015, after several years of preparation and constituency-building. Coordinated by the GPPAC Global and Northeast Asia Regional Secretariats and Mongolian NGO Blue Banner, the Ulaanbaatar Process is currently the priority activity of the regional network.[xix] With the participation of civil society representatives from all Six Party Talk member countries, as well as the host Mongolia, it promotes effective regional Track II dialogue, seeking to strengthen the role of civil society as a complement to Track I efforts.
The overall objective of the Ulaanbaatar Process is to support the creation of peace and stability throughout Northeast Asia, through the promotion of civil society dialogue, with the following specific objectives:[xx]
· To strengthen the role of civil society in the context of building peace and stability in Northeast Asia;
· To complement and contribute recommendations to official processes, including the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue for Northeast Asian Security initiated by the Mongolian government;
· To support the development of an institutionalized regional mechanism supporting dialogue and reconciliation in Northeast Asia;
· To contribute to overall confidence-building measures within the Northeast Asian region.
Since its inception in 2015, two full rounds of dialogue have been held in Mongolia; this publication is being launched at the third Ulaanbaatar Process Dialogue, in August 2017. These meetings have seen constructive debate and knowledge-sharing on issues of concern to the entire region, including the creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, the replacement of the Korean War armistice with a permanent peace treaty, and the role that the women and men of civil society can continue to play in helping achieve these goals.
Lessons from this dialogue
While still a fledgling process, the experience of the Ulaanbaatar Process has highlighted the crucial value of creating space in the same forum for civil society perspectives from across the region, including both the DPRK and ROK. Opportunities for citizens from throughout the region to gather remain extremely limited. The regular and sustained convening of meetings, with the commitment of consistent participation, has enabled the nurturing of a culture of frank openness and listening. Participating from the DPRK, then Secretary General of the Korean National Peace Committee Mr O Ryong Il[xxi] stated in an interview with the Mongolian Observer that “the UB Process gives us a really good opportunity to know what other countries think about the issues on the Korean Peninsula and what needs to be done to ease tensions in the region. So through these frequent exchanges I think we can come up with solutions on how to solve the many security problems that we are facing today.”[xxii] The importance of inclusivity, ensuring space for safe participation from throughout the region based on mutual trust and respect, has been key to the continuation of the process, as well as to the sense of ownership held by participants themselves.
The Ulaanbaatar Process has also reinforced the ongoing need for historical reckoning. Given the historical roots of current tensions in the region, future-oriented work can only take place hand-in-hand with sincere efforts for reconciliation. To this end, GPPAC Northeast Asia’s continuing efforts in the fields of history textbook education and youth reconciliation projects — including those by its regional secretariat Peace Boat — play an important role in guaranteeing the foundations for mutual understanding and trust-building so important to ensuring confidence in the process itself.
Conclusion and next steps
The experience of the Ulaanbaatar Process and GPPAC Northeast Asia has reaffirmed the need to develop more frequent and sustained opportunities for engagement and cooperation between civil society organizations of the Northeast Asian region. At the same time, severe constraints arising from the lack of resources has highlighted the need for deep understanding and support from other stakeholders regarding the role of civil society to tackle pressing regional peace and security issues. Despite a track record of over one decade of sustained cooperation and activity, GPPAC Northeast Asia suffers from a lack of resources, both financial and human. As the space for government’s constructive action for peace becomes increasingly limited, and as the role of civil society becomes more recognized, it is vital that full support is given for civil society initiatives that could contribute to the creation of an environment in which regional dialogue can once again take place. This must go hand in hand with efforts to build the capacity of the emerging civil society engaging in peace and security issues within the region. To that end, civil society participation from the whole of Northeast Asia should be institutionalized in various multilateral processes. Such steps are vital to ensure the sustainability and momentum of initiatives such as the Ulaanbaatar Process.
Despite the limited and oftentimes pessimistic situation in the region, GPPAC Northeast Asia and its partners will continue to hold regular, face-to-face meetings among members of civil society groups in the region, with the aim to change the prevailing narrative surrounding the contentious regional geopolitical relationships and to promote communication and cooperation amongst participants. Resolution of the conflict on the Korean peninsula will of course only be possible through governmental efforts, including the creation of a peace treaty to replace the current armistice regime. Yet a sustained effort by civil society is vital to create an environment conducive to progress on official levels. By establishing and maintaining a safe space for participation from all countries, and continuing to build trust both within the process as well as from other stakeholders, GPPAC hopes to demonstrate that sincere and constructive dialogue is indeed possible in Northeast Asia — and to “make a habit of dialogue,” toward the common and comprehensive vision “to create a regional mechanism for peace through concrete actions of disarmament, demilitarization, and attaining justice, democracy, non-violence and sustainability in Northeast Asia.”[xxiii]
[i] United Nations, General Assembly Security Council, Prevention of armed conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/55/985–S/2001/574, (7 June 2001), available from
[ii] United Nations, General Assembly Security Council, Prevention of armed conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/55/985–S/2001/574, (7 June 2001), available from
[vi] Zahid Movlazadeh (ed.) et al, Creating Spaces for Dialogue: A role for civil society (The Hague: Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2015), p11.
[vii] Zahid Movlazadeh et al, Creating Spaces for Dialogue: A role for civil society (The Hague: Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2015), p11.
[viii] GPPAC publication “Creating Spaces for Dialogue: A role for Civil Society.”
Full text and seminar information available online here:
[ix] Chigas, Diana, “Track II (Citizen) Diplomacy,” August 2003, http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/track2_diplomacy.
[x] Rather than convening around “national” focal points, the deliberate decision was made by GPPAC Northeast Asia during its initiation to build its membership on the basis of cities. This allows for full participation from throughout the entire region, going beyond contentious nation-state constructs which hinder cooperation across certain boundaries within the region. Full information; GPPAC Northeast Asia Focal Points: https://www.peaceportal.org/web/gppac-northeast-asia/focal-points.
[xi] CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2017:
Each year the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report examines the major events that involve and affect civil society around the world. Our report reviews the past year, focusing on the space for civil society — civic space — and the impact of a resurgence of right-wing populist politics; the right to express dissent; protest movements; and civil society’s international-level actions. A special thematic section presents 27 guest articles from thought leaders around the world, exploring the often troublesome, yet potentially beneficial, relationships between civil society and the private sector.
[xiii] Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan, “Mongolia: Blue Banner cooperation with Mongolian government” in GPPAC Issue Paper 4, Joint Action for Prevention: Civil Society and Government Cooperation on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, December 2007, Edited by Paul van Tongeren and Christine van Empel. LINK?
[xiv] Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Northeast Asia Regional Action Agenda:
‘TOKYO AGENDA’ Towards Creation of a Regional Mechanism for Peace, http://peaceboat.org/oldsite/info/gppac/agenda_0222e.pdf p4.
[xv] Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Northeast Asia Regional Action Agenda:
‘TOKYO AGENDA’ Towards Creation of a Regional Mechanism for Peace, 2005 http://peaceboat.org/oldsite/info/gppac/agenda_0222e.pdf.
[xvii] GPPAC Northeast Asia Activities in 2008 https://www.peaceportal.org/web/gppac-northeast-asia/16
[xviii] Global Article 9 Campaign link
[xix] The Ulaanbaatar Process: https://www.peaceportal.org/web/ulaanbaatar-process/home
[xx] From the Ulaanbaatar Process Framework Document — available:
[xxi] Currently Presidium Member of the same organization.
[xxii] “Mutual trust is extremely important,” Interview with O Ryong Il, Korean National Peace Committee, The Mongolian Observer, July 8 & 25, 2015, Available online: https://www.peaceportal.org/documents/131936949/0/O+Ryong+Il.pdf/.
[xxiii] Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Northeast Asia Regional Action Agenda: ‘TOKYO AGENDA’ Towards Creation of a Regional Mechanism for Peace, http://peaceboat.org/oldsite/info/gppac/agenda_0222e.pdf, p4.