The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI): A Vision toward Sustainable Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia

The security environment in the Asia-Pacific is in flux. South Korea is facing the most serious and complex external security environment since the end of the Cold War. Tensions have risen remarkably in Northeast Asia in recent years, sparking growing concern in the international community and among the major players in the region. China’s unilateral declaration of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in late 2013 illustrated the degree of tension in this region. It posed a very sensitive and complicated problem that involved the strategic interests of China and those of Korea, Japan, and the United States. It has never been easy for Korea to secure its national interests, while not undermining cooperative relations with countries involved in the region; the ADIZ issue symbolizes the challenges it faces as officials and policy experts strive to turn them into opportunities for wise and principled diplomacy. Among other challenges, South Korea has to face the rise of China, the historical revisionism in Japan and mounting nationalistic responses from its neighbors, the return of assertive Russia, and an anachronistic North Korea with its nuclear ambitions. It is against this backdrop that the Park Geun-hye government is pursuing the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) to promote sustainable peace and cooperation.

Looking beyond Asia, the recent global security situation has been quite tumultuous as well. All of a sudden, revisionist states are leading global geopolitical rivalries onto center stage. Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China making aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan responding with an increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations. When the Cold War ended, many in the West seemed to think that the most vexing geopolitical questions had largely been settled. However, they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it.1

Since the end of the Cold War, contrary to many people’s expectations, old historical and territorial disputes are fueling conflicts among countries in this region. Despite growing economic interdependence among Asian nations, political and security cooperation continue to lag behind, perpetuating the so-called “Asia Paradox.” Regional development and interdependence continue without concurrent development in political and security cooperation. Growing distrust can be attributed to confrontational rhetoric with the rising possibility of military conflict resulting from territorial disputes. Despite mounting tensions in the region, there has been no adequate framework in place to address regional security challenges. There is a lack of effective measures to respond not only to the causes of conflict in the region but also to common emerging threats. The possibility of maximizing development potential is also limited. Within this context, major countries have recently suggested various versions of a “pivot” for a new regional order as evidenced by the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot or strategic rebalancing,” Xi Jinping’s “China Dream and New Type of Great Power Relationship,” and Vladimir Putin’s “Far East Development Policy.” There is a desperate need for a regional strategic blueprint to overcome the security deficit in Northeast Asia.

What is NAPCI?

NAPCI is an effort based on the Park Administration’s core concept of trustpolitik that aims to build an infrastructure of trust between countries and promote regional order based on cooperation. Trust is a necessary prerequisite for inter-state cooperation and sustainable peace. Throughout her political career, Park has emphasized the importance of trust not just among individuals but also between Korea and other nations. As her fundamental political creed, it operates at several levels: trust with the Korean people, trust between the two Koreas, trust between Korea and Northeast Asian nations, and trust between Korea and the global community. Trustpolitik is an umbrella concept that comprises the trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula, NAPCI, the Eurasia Initiative, and middle power diplomacy and networking.

NAPCI is a multilateral process. It aims to build trust by accumulating conventions of dialogue and identifying areas of cooperation in non-traditional security related issues, as well as enlarging the scope of cooperation in traditional security related matters. The core tenets of NAPCI include: overcoming the Asia Paradox, pursuing East Asia’s joint peace and prosperity, establishing a liberal international order within East Asia, and creating a vision for the Asian community.2 First, cooperation and negotiations have the potential to develop into a broader initiative encompassing all of Northeast Asia through interaction with the Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula. Second, NAPCI purports to establish a liberal international order in East Asia, rejecting the notion of a zero-sum approach to defining national interests. Third, NAPCI seeks a regional collective security framework in keeping with the vision of a regional community also referred to as “the New Asia.” This means building a mechanism and culture of peace and cooperation through multilateral dialogue. Another objective is to cope with various uncertainties that include North Korea, contributing towards its participation in the international community and resolution of the nuclear problem.

Building sustainable peace and cooperation through NAPCI supports the Eurasia Initiative, which seeks to make Eurasia the “Peaceful Continent.” This is a plan to integrate Eurasia into a single continent (via energy and transportation networks), a creative continent (through technology and a fusion of cultures), and a peaceful continent (along with NAPCI and the Trust Building Process on the Korean Peninsula).

NAPCI centers on regional stakeholders including the ROK, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Mongolia, and the DPRK. To prevent delays in dialogue and cooperation on regional security, the initiative maintains an open stance so that it can develop into “inclusive regional cooperation.” In terms of membership, it leaves open the possibility of participation and cooperation by other regional organizations (e.g. the EU, ASEAN, and the OSCE) that can shed light on the challenges and pitfalls of regional cooperation.

At the outset, NAPCI aims to focus on non-traditional soft security issues. It prioritizes urgent issues that require a high degree of coordination or are highly feasible with low political costs. Major agenda items may include disaster relief, nuclear safety, environmental protection, public health, energy security, cyberspace security, and transnational crime. Initial success on these issues would be followed by expanding the agenda items to include hard security issues, i.e. political-military affairs.

The participation of important stakeholders, such as the United States and China, is essential for sustainable peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Arguably, NAPCI can fit into the US and Chinese visions of regional order. It not only would establish an environment advantageous for the US rebalance, but also can assuage concerns arising from great power competition as well as threats originating from North Korea. For the time being, the key challenge will be the deficit of trust resulting from the US-China rivalry, the deteriorating Sino-Japanese relations, and Japan’s conservative shift. Amid such trends, South Korea may be better poised to promote NAPCI, free from great power rivalry and competition, particularly among the United States, China, and Japan.

What’s new in NAPCI? Comparisons with the Northeast Asia multilateral security regimes in previous administrations

Almost every administration in Korea has tried to realize a multilateral security cooperation regime as a complementary tool to a bilateral alliance-based security system in Northeast Asia. On the one hand, the Park Geun-hye administration’s NAPCI attempts to differentiate itself from previous proposals; on the other, it aims to build stability and peace in Northeast Asia by creating synergy with the ‘Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula’ for the normalization of North Korea.

Overcoming the “Asia Paradox” requires addressing through multilateral mechanisms conventional security threats, such as historical disputes, territorial disputes, and antagonistic nationalism, which persist in Northeast Asia, as well as newly emerging non-conventional security threats. Initiatives for a Northeast Asia cooperation regime have been an integral part of almost every administration in Korea. Since Mikhail Gorbachev first presented the idea of an All-Asia Security Conference in July 1986, there have been various multilateral security cooperation initiatives proposed in East Asia. Beginning with President Roh Tae-woo’s Consultative Conference for Peace in Northeast Asia, previous South Korean administrations voiced the need for such a security system. Roh’s speech at the United Nations was a meaningful response to Gorbachev’s idea, aimed at building momentum for Roh’s nordpolitik policy. In May 1994, the Kim Young-sam administration proposed the establishment of the Northeast Asia Security Dialogue (NEASED) at the first ARF-Senior Officials Meeting encouraged by the foundation of the ARF, CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific), and the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD). However, as the Korean government failed to gain support for its agenda and the ARF was inherently limited by ASEAN centrality, the outcome was seen as unsatisfactory.

President Kim Dae-jung called for a multilateral security dialogue at a series of summits with Japan (October 1998), China (November 1988), and Russia (May 1999). However, his efforts did not result in concrete outcomes due to the absence of prior consultation with relevant countries and the lack of follow-up measures. In addition, the idea of “four-party talks” to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula proposed at the Jeju summit of Kim Young-sam and President Bill Clinton faced challenges from Japan and Russia, requesting to transform it into a six-party format.

President Roh Moo-hyun, who had great expectations for his initiative for an “Era of Peace and Prosperity in Northeast Asia,” emphasized the significance of multilateral security cooperation in the region, expressing strong determination for it from the early days of the administration. In order to “endeavor to enhance confidence and raise the level of security cooperation through regularization of multilateral security dialogue,”3 he sought to regularize multilateral security dialogues to enhance confidence, raise the level of security cooperation, and expand the scope of agendas starting from common security concerns such as environment, transnational crime, and health. This led to regional multilateral security talks to encourage North Korea’s participation and to gradually expand the underpinning of military, confidence-building measures. His administration’s multilateral security cooperation initiative is seen to have been the most systematic, but it was overly idealistic and overzealous, and it did not result in any meaningful outcomes as favorable conditions were not given time to mature due to the delayed resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. More importantly, the administration’s ambitious “Northeast Asia Balancer Policy” only aroused cynical reactions from the international community, far from winning the support of major countries. Therefore, the “Era of Peace and Prosperity in Northeast Asia” initiative, which also lacked domestic support, failed to result in any positive outcome.

The Lee Myung-bak administration had relatively low recognition of the utility of multilateral security dialogue compared to other administrations. During Lee’s tenure, the idea was suspended, losing both supporters and momentum. In part, it was due to a series of unfavorable factors, such as confrontations with North Korea and its rejection of the Six-Party Talks. However, Lee’s lack of awareness of the need is considered by many in Seoul to be more fundamental. As a result, when Park Geun-hye took office few, if any, tangible moves toward regional multilateral security cooperation were left.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Washington D.C. on March 31, 2008 raised the idea of turning the Six-Party talks over the North Korean nuclear program into a regional security cooperative body for the Asia-Pacific modeled after Europe’s experience with the OSCE in the 1970s; Park Geun-hye’s NAPCI, presented at the ROK-US Summit on May 7, 2013, is the only proposal that meets this test. Compared to these previous attempts to establish a multilateral security regime in Northeast Asia, NAPCI has the following attributes. First, it calls for open and inclusive multilateral cooperation. Past administrations have proposed a multilateral approach without measurable results in part due to the political, economic, and sociocultural heterogeneity within the region. Historical antagonisms associated with Japan’s imperialist rule and territorial disputes stemming from the post-World War II management process have been a complicating factor. A vacuum in leadership has perpetuated the absence of coordination towards the construction of a regional multilateral security framework. In addition, previous initiatives emphasized declarations, government leadership, and grand narratives, which focused on hard traditional security problems. NAPCI is unique in that it is not only open and inclusive on agenda and membership but also in function.

Second, NAPCI points to evolutionary multilateral cooperation. It is not a completed concept; rather, in terms of its composition, function, and goals, there is much to be determined. It does not limit members or the agenda. Instead of excluding or replacing existing local cooperative bodies, it maintains a cooperative relationship with them and promotes “joint stakeholdership” with shared responsibility and benefits. NAPCI does not compete with or exclude any existing regional multilateral cooperation regime, but explores the revitalization of all and aims for complementarity. The EAS and ARF pursue the same goal of peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Third, NAPCI attempts to create an area-wide community of awareness, breaking away from the traditional security-oriented mindset. Instead, it aims for cooperative joint regional security based on shared awareness. It aims to reduce security uncertainties that may arise through the strengthening of specific bilateral relationships and to reduce the costs stemming from their maintenance. Rather than imposing existing order or norms, NAPCI pushes for an approach that fits the present conditions, attempting to create a new security culture and shared vision through the establishment of a regional identity.

How to implement NAPCI

There are many ways to promote NAPCI. First, NAPCI takes a “process-oriented” approach through dialogue and promotion of the culture of peace and cooperation, aiming to gradually improve the level of institutionalization. It is not a results-oriented approach, but it puts emphasis on phased results. To maintain its impetus, it aims to gradually improve the level of institutionalization by phased outcomes. The short-term goal is to gain the support of participating countries through high-level (ministerial) talks and executive declarations. The long-term goal is to establish the custom of dialogue and cooperation and a culture of peace and cooperation among participating countries. Second, NAPCI seeks multi-layered, multi-dimensional cooperation, promoting not only Track 1 and Track 2, but also Track 1.5. It aims to achieve mutual synergy by promoting cooperation at both the governmental and civilian levels among participating countries, combining a bottom-up and a top-down approach. Considering complexity of global diplomacy, peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia should be promoted in a two-track approach by both the nation and the civilian sector (non-governmental actors), with a bottom-up process of accumulating the custom of dialogue and cooperation based on individual cooperation and a top-down process of showing the willingness of high-level officials to become engaged at appropriate times.

Third, NAPCI encourages open dialogue and cooperation, progressively connecting direct and indirect stakeholders. It aims to share mutual responsibility and benefits. Participant countries volunteer to take the initiative rather than having any one country lead. In this, South Korea would contribute as a facilitator of regional cooperation.

Fourth, NAPCI welcomes cooperation with existing cooperative organizations. It is not an attempt to replace them (EAS, ARF, Trilateral Cooperation, etc.). It seeks to facilitate regional cooperation within a bigger framework, including with existing organizations, and to differentiate itself from existing organizations, complementing them. If there is no cooperative mechanism in unexplored areas, NAPCI would seek new ways of cooperation and supplement the existing framework. It welcomes the participation of regional and international organizations as observers to share their experience and cooperation with other regions, such as Southeast Asia and Europe.

Fifth, NAPCI, when connected with the Korean Peninsula Trust-Building Process, can set the mood and create conditions to solve issues regarding North Korea. Through multilateral security dialogue, it can reach agreements on various security issues, while creating a suitable external environment to cope with policy changes. Aside from dealing with peninsular issues, multilateral security dialogue can enhance mutual awareness through regional information exchanges on each country’s main security concerns, contributing to the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula and ultimately to mutual understanding and cooperation for peaceful unification.

Finally, NAPCI would start with transnational human security issues. Considering regional circumstances, NAPCI seeks to discuss human security concerns at the regional level and, at the same time, deal with global issues and concerns in other regions. Centering on the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in Seoul, it seeks to secure support from the other two countries based on the original agreement. For instance, disaster relief, nuclear safety, environmental protection, and public health are promising starting points for NAPCI.

Future challenges for NAPCI

NAPCI’s implementation has been slow and frustrating. There are unsolved issues over traditional geopolitics, such as territorial and sovereignty disputes in Northeast Asian countries, with some countries passive toward Northeast Asia multilateral security cooperation in part due to efforts to avoid the internationalization of such disputes. This contrasts with the way multilateral security cooperation became rooted in Europe. Political and economic systems are more divergent. Cultural differences as well as historical confrontations and antagonistic nationalism are still ongoing problems. In addition, Asia lags in recognizing the need for a community, as there is no common recognition of a crisis such as a nuclear war or a large-scale war between superpowers. Asia has relied on conventional bilateral alliances (the US-Japan, ROK-US and DPRK-China alliances) and a sustained arms race, while Europe proactively promoted multilateral security cooperation to deter a nuclear war after the Cuba missile crisis.

Although NAPCI started with good intentions, implementation has been frustrating because of mounting geopolitical tensions and worsening relations among Northeast Asian nations. Nevertheless, there are positive factors for a renewed effort. First, a consensus on the need to control possible conflict issues has been spreading in light of uncertainty over North Korea after a long suspension of the Six-Party Talks as well as on other concerns involving territorial disputes, including those over the East and South China seas. In addition, nationalistic conflicts are heightening awareness of a need to do something. Sustained economic growth and increased intra-regional trade also contribute to raising awareness of this need.

Given these conditions, policy circles in Korea think that conditions are ripe to retry a new regional initiative based on its enhanced international status and diplomatic capacity as a middle power. There is increased consensus for creating an appropriate cooperation tool to prevent regional conflicts from degenerating into a military clash and for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. Korea has demonstrated its influence by hosting the G20 Summit, the Nuclear Security Summit, and the fourth highest level forum on Aid Effectiveness as a result of the Lee Myung-bak Administration’s “Global Korea” diplomacy.

It is widely thought that the Obama administration does not have enough strength left to drive East Asia multilateral security due to accumulated fatigue from its sustained strategic patience policy toward North Korea, federal budget sequestration, and weakened domestic and international capacity as well as concentration on rebalancing elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region. The Xi Jinping leadership has to deal with many urgent domestic issues and, internationally, its focal point is more on the relationship with Japan linked to the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. Moreover, China recently admitted that it has less leverage over North Korea than it seems. Meanwhile, Japan has lost much of its regional leadership and influence due to a shift in focus after the Great East Japan Earthquake and headwinds from the Abe administration’s conservative drift. These states, it seems, expect Korea to take the initiative. By taking advantage of the situation, the Park administration can make real progress on NAPCI.

It does not have much time to implement the idea. Already at the end of its second year, progress has not been slow. Considering the practical time limits, the success of NAPCI will depend on progress on the following four criteria: 1) identity—to persuade other what NAPCI is and what should be its desirable “end-state,” forging a consensus to support the initiative; 2) efficacy—demonstrating that NAPCI is capable of dealing with hard security issues by expanding cooperation on soft security issues; 3) incentives—explaining that it will benefit not just the two Koreas but other nations in Northeast Asia; and 4) leadership—showing that other Northeast Asian nations will endorse the NAPCI concept and Park’s leadership.

Two obstacles to implementing NAPCI may be the North Korean issue and worsening Korea-Japan relations. North Korea’s nuclear program causes the utmost difficulty for the future of the Trust-building Process on the Korean Peninsula. That is why NAPCI attempts to engage North Korea through diverse soft issue projects. As for Japan relations, South Korea should consider how to improve them or face criticism over whether or not it is really capable of leading a movement for peace in Northeast Asia when it cannot achieve rapprochement with Japan. Therefore, it is crucial to attract Japan through a summit as soon as possible. Japan needs to change its attitude too. Mutual efforts must be made through strategic channels between the two.

Thus, it is necessary to concentrate on generating consensus and building a foundation for the initiative in the early stage. This could be done by the president and the foreign and security ministers making the case for it at every major official event, promoting bilateral and multilateral strategic dialogue in various fields with relevant countries, while providing full support for non-governmental level activities. Implementation would be improved by establishing a department dedicated to the work of the initiative within the administration and appointing a high-level special representative (assistant secretary level, preferably) as the head. When the time is ripe, Park Geun-hye should officially propose launching a “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Conference” at a major international gathering.


1. Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (May/June 2014).

2. The core explanations are drawn from Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Research Task Force; Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, report for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (released in 2014),

3. See for detail; ROK National Security Council Secretariat, Peace, Prosperity and National Security, March 1, 2004.