Solving the Security Puzzle in Northeast Asia: A Multilateral Security Regime


The year 2000 marks a critical turning point on the Korean Peninsula. The June summit between North and South Korea may lead the United States, Japan, China, and Russia to establish increased consultation, discussion, and coordination, paving the way for the Korea issue to galvanize new cooperation among the concerned parties of Northeast Asia. Alternately, U.S. pursuit of missile defenses and its revised alliance with Japan may strengthen an inceptive strategic coalition between China and Russia. Korea’s geographic location once again places the peninsula at the crossroads of these great powers and momentous events.

The process of managing transition on the Korean Peninsula holds the potential to create new patterns of cooperation that would lay the foundation for a 21st century security architecture in Northeast Asia. Establishing a six-party security regime centered on the Korean peninsula best captures this historic opportunity. Through confidence-building measures such a regime would draw in both Koreas while clearly defining the role of the major outside powers in resolving the Korea conundrum peacefully.

Nonetheless, the six-party formula has clear merits in its potential to promote peace and stability amid change on the peninsula. To generate more focused thinking on this proposal, this research examines the opportunities and prospects for a security regime in Northeast Asia. It begins with a summary of the origins and foundations for a multilateral security regime on the Korean peninsula, and then considers the interests, capabilities, and reservations of each of the six principle states involved. Finally, the paper proposes a strategy for establishing this regime and evaluates its future prospects.

Origins of Multilateralism in Northeast Asia

The earliest inception of a Northeast Asian security regime began with U.S. proposals in the early 1970s for multilateral talks among all regional powers aimed at reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula motivated in part by a desire to gradually reduce U.S. troop deployments in East Asia. Despite subsequent similar proposals by South Korean and other U.S. politicians, the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War effective suppressed any efforts to implement these concepts. The advent of the post-Cold War era quickly expanded prospects for a regional security regime, as a number of multilateral fora were quickly established. These included: ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), the official-level security forum for the Asia Pacific; CSCAP (the Committee on Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific); the North Pacific Working Group of CSCAP as a track-II sub-regional security dialogue, which is attended by all the North Pacific countries, including North Korea; and the “ASEAN plus three,” which has been held annually since 1997 with members of ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea.

However, such promising ventures as the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD),1 a “track two” conference proposed by Susan Shirk, and South Korea’s proposed Northeast Asia Security Dialogue (NEASED),2 were stymied by a lack of regional consensus, their inability to develop into official level talks, and an inability to include the principle party of concern, North Korea. Finally, multilateral cooperation was almost accidentally created in the formation of the KEDO (Korean Energy Development Organization) operation.

KEDO was founded in 1994 to implement the Geneva Agreement signed between the United States and North Korea, but also included South Korea and Japan. By offering North Korea an incentive-access to heavy oil, and the construction of light water reactors-to negotiate with these three states, KEDO established a functioning model of multilateral cooperation in security matters in Northeast Asia-one that may lead North Korea to other forms of engagement with the outside world.3 KEDO thus laid the foundation for the Four Party Talks, proposed by the United States and South Korea in 1996, and held for the first time in 1997. These meetings were aimed at negotiating a formal peace treaty that would officially end the state of war that has existed on the Korean Peninsula for almost five decades. While critics argue that the Four Party Talks are mere ceremonial gatherings with little substantive impact, they have served at least as an important confidence-building measure in the uncertain Northeast Asian security environment.

Since its 1998 inauguration, the Kim Dae-Jung government in South Korea has taken numerous steps to promote cooperative security interests and dampen possibilities for a major power confrontation on the peninsula.4 Particularly, Seoul has taken numerous diplomatic initiatives to engage North Korea, Russia, and Japan. However, South Korea’s effort at sub-regional multilateralism has taken an interesting turn in 2000. South Korea’s strong support for six-party talks was to open a venue for official level dialogue with the North while involving neighboring powers. Yet the advent of an inter-Korean dialogue and exchange may free South Korea from the political burden of pursuing sub-regionalism. Moreover, since both Koreas support the idea of “achieving reunification independent of outside pressures,” the value of a multilateral security regime may appear to have declined.

Nevertheless, in a multilateral, six-party framework for Northeast Asia, less politically sensitive issues such as disaster relief, coordination of the pending refugee issues, environment and energy, and other functionally oriented issues including joint investment and economic development, can be dealt with. In the absence of a comprehensive multilateral regional mechanism, sub-regional settings can also facilitate bilateral negotiation among countries and their representatives who may otherwise be unable or ill prepared to have direct talks with each other.

The Six Parties: Obstacles, Interests, and Opportunities

South Korea – Motivated Middle-Power

Why does South Korea, a small power surrounded by the big powers, seek to establish multilateralism in Northeast Asia? There are three major reasons behind South Korea’s support for multilateralism: its desire for reduced tension on the peninsula, its need to engage the surrounding powers, and domestic imperatives. At a minimum, South Korea seeks the amelioration of tension on the peninsula. By pursuing modest goals, such as expanding trade and facilitating the movement of people between the two Koreas, a multilateral forum might foster an initial atmosphere of modest détente between the two Koreas.

South Korea also recognizes that its future security environment is inextricably linked to the vicissitudes in relations among the four nearby great powers: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. By seeking the endorsement or implicit understanding by the surrounding powers, South Korea improves its security environment while enhancing the durability of any agreement on the future of the Korean peninsula. A multilateral regime on the peninsula, such as NEASD (Northeast Asian Security Dialogue), would not replace the current bilateral security framework, but instead supplement it by engaging Russia, which remains the only major party outside current multilateral regimes on the peninsula.

Finally, domestic politics is also an important reason behind South Korea’s pursuit of sub-regionalism. Inter-Korean dialogue, in whatever manner, is a sign of success essential to South Korean efforts to build domestic support for its engagement policy. Since North Korea had adamantly refused official level government-to-government talks with the South until recently, the multilateral framework became a convenient venue for the South to deal directly with the North. The Korean public wishes to see the Korean issue resolved by the Koreans, while the big powers’ interests and calculations are kept at a distance. In this regard, South Korea’s initiative and the ultimate establishment of a multilateral security regime strengthen its diplomatic credibility, both at home and abroad. A successful new multilateralism, functionally oriented and issue-centered on Korea, would thus strengthen domestic support in South Korea for the unification process.

In addition, current unilateral and bilateral movements such as the U.S.-DPRK talks, the inter-Korean summit, the DPRK-Russian summit, and the DPRK’s diplomatic strides to break self-imposed isolation encourage progress on multilateral negotiations. Other bilateral policies, such as the recognition of the DPRK by both Japan and the United States, are also important interim steps toward eventual reunification. Multilateralism complements, but does not conflict with, such developments.

North Korea – A Constraining Element

Despite the South’s numerous efforts, its diplomatic influence on major power relations is clearly limited. It is difficult to clearly identify North Korea’s real interest in multilateralism. Overlapping interests among the major powers and the two Koreas are not enough to form a positive motivation, since the countries involved exhibit serious gaps in defining common interests and common aversions.5

Despite the reduced tension on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s omni-directional diplomacy and historical summit between the two Koreas, North Korea still shows little interest in the six-party security framework since it fears isolation in a de facto five plus one formula. In fact, ever since expressing interest in joining the ARF in 1994, North Korea has shown little interest in any kind of multilateral forum, including the Four-Party Talks. North Korea has denounced the South Korean government for seeking to win support from foreign countries, while characterizing its effort toward multilateralism as proof of its subordination to external forces. The DPRK has set two important preconditions for its support of a multilateral security dialogue: improvement of its bilateral relations with Washington and Tokyo; and that the dialogue not be directed specially toward (or against) them.6

North Korea feels more comfortable with bilateral bargaining and track-two because of the sensitive, controversial issues with which it is involved. DPRK officials maintain that in order to ensure security in the region through multilateral negotiations, it is important to create an atmosphere of confidence building by resolving complicated issues bilaterally.7 As implied in such a statement, the DPRK’s resistance to four plus two settings also stems from their resentment, if not feeling of betrayal, over the lack of progress in establishing diplomatic relations with both Japan and the United States. The key to success in creating and implementing a multilateral security regime in the region would be creating an irresistible stake for Pyongyang to be engaged in such a mechanism. Given North Korea’s aversion toward multiparty regimes, South Korea planned to promote a five-party intergovernmental dialogue in Northeast Asia if North Korea continued to reject participation.

The United States – Uncooperative Hegemon

Ironically parallel to North Korea, the United States also has traditionally viewed a regional security regime with much skepticism. The United States has remained concerned that the institutionalization of multilateral security mechanisms might unnecessarily constrain its freedom of action in dealing with regional security affairs. Instead, the U.S. has repeatedly emphasized its bilateral defense relationships as the foundation of American security policy in Asia. More comfortable with one-on-one approaches to security issues in Asia, U.S. officials are rather hesitant to embrace and aggressively pursue a multilateral approach-particularly in addressing security concerns, and especially when the idea also draws skeptical responses from North Korea and China.

American distrust arises in part from the origin of the idea; it was originally proposed by the former Soviet Union during the Cold War in order to dilute American influence.8 However, with the advent of the post-Cold War era, a tendency toward more senior-level, issue oriented multilateral security initiatives began to emerge. Since 1991, support from American intellectuals and officials for greater U.S. involvement in a regional dialogue process grew markedly.9 The enhancement of multilateral security dialogue as well as a continued U.S. military presence and commitment was among the Clinton Administration’s ten priority policy goals for Asia.10 Joseph Nye also emphasized the regional institution as a confidence building measure designed to complement the existing American alliance structure, not to replace it.11

As Richard N. Haass recently pointed out, the success of a strategy encouraging cooperative multipolarity depends on the United States’ ability to bring others on board on a regional scale.12 Yet the United States still shows little willingness to lead such a venture, despite its primacy in world politics. U.S. reluctance also stems from its recent difficult lessons in multilateralism, such as in the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis. When U.S.-North Korean talks were suspended and the issue returned to the United Nations Security Council, the expanded number of actors involved likewise enhanced the difficulty of reaching a negotiated solution.

Some Americans, including former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell, have proposed “minilateralism” as a secondary approach or stepping stone for more institutionalized multilateralism. KEDO and TCOG (the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group of the United States, Japan and South Korea) are representative cases of this approach. So far, the minilateral setting has been proven an effective venue for negotiation and coordination, even though it has not, and may not, lead to the establishment of a multilateral regime in the region.

Overall, U.S. support for the development of multilateral cooperation on the Korean Peninsula has been ad hoc, opportunistic, and crisis-driven rather than conforming to pre-planned strategic objectives. An underlying reason is that multilateral fora are not effective in responding to crises given their consensus-oriented operating style. In the event of military hostilities or a clear threat to U.S. national security interests in Asia, the United States is more likely to act in concert with its existing allies or through an ad hoc grouping of like-minded states. Yet the lack of common interests and a common enemy in Northeast Asia render the establishment of a NATO-type security structure extremely unlikely.13

With its bilateral military alliances and a healthy skepticism toward multilateral approaches, the U.S. is not eager to go down the path of multilateral security frameworks. The problem is not that the U.S. has strong opposition to the idea of multilateralism itself, but that it has not paid real attention to the idea thus far. Multilateralism has been viewed by the United States as a nice thing to have if the international community is ready for it, but unfortunately, in most cases, the international community has proven itself to be rather unprepared.14 Yet if multilateralism in the region is going to move forward, it will require that the U.S. offer not only its support but also its leadership and vision.

China – A Reluctant Participant

In principle, Chinese officials support the idea of multilateral dialogues to exchange views and promote mutual understanding. In practice, they have been cautious at multilateral meetings, acutely sensitive to perceived intrusions into Chinese sovereignty, sometimes rigid in presenting their views, and frequently anxious about perceived coalitions operating against them.15 China’s participation in any kind of multilateral regimes tended to be reluctant and defensive. Frequently China wants a seat at the table but attempts to limit the pace and scope of discussions, especially in areas related to transparency and specific regional conflicts.

A key reason for China’s lack of eagerness is its concern over Japan. China simply does not want to see Japan play an important role in security issues in a multilateral regional setting. On the other hand, there is some evidence that the Chinese leadership has decided that multilateral security fora can be used to serve its own interests, in order to challenge the U.S. role, or undermine the U.S. bilateral alliance structure by emphasizing regional dialogues.16 Thus, for Beijing, the multilateralism in Northeast Asia is a way to tie China in and to tie the United States down. Furthermore, China began to realize that it would help reduce fears of the “China threat” if China became actively involved in multilateral fora. In addition, China may see multilateral structures as support for its ideological insistence on the trend toward multipolarity, as opposed to an American-led Asian security order.17

China presumably wields influence over North Korea, as North Korea depends upon China for a good part of its fuel and food supplies. Interestingly, China has kept some distance from KEDO (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization), arguing that it can better contribute to the success of KEDO by remaining outside the organization. Perhaps the major reason for Chinese disinterest is the cost to be borne by KEDO members for building the two light water reactors in the North.

On the other hand, China has displayed deep interest and active involvement in the Four Party Talks, particularly after North Korea finally agreed to participate. Furthermore, when in early 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung asked his Chinese counterpart to accept the proposed six party declaration for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, China accepted it “in principle.” In the short to medium term, China has the most to gain diplomatically from radically improved relations between North and South Korea and so has thrived on the so-called “double-edged sword” approach of improving relations with both Koreas.18 As the secret visit by Kim Jong-Il to China only a few days before the summit reflects, China is back on center stage in Korean affairs.

China shares many of the same objectives as the United States regarding the Korean Peninsula. It wants to keep Korea nuclear-free. It wants stability and to prevent either a refugee crisis or an armed conflict that could draw China in. To Beijing, a stable and friendly but divided Korean Peninsula is more desirable than Korea’s rapid unification. So far, China has played a constructive role on the Korean Peninsula, as demonstrated through the North Korean nuclear and missile issues of the past few years. Beijing does not oppose closer bilateral relations between North Korea and the United States, however several of its important interests do diverge from those of the U.S.. Most importantly, Beijing firmly opposes what it sees as Washington’s troubling tendencies toward unilateral action. Like many other countries, China does not always support U.S.-led interventions in hot spots around the world. Therefore, China’s position toward multilateralism will likely depend on three factors: the triangular relationship between the United States, Japan and China, progress in the U.S.-DPRK relationship, and the development of the situation on the peninsula.

Japan – Strong Advocate

Japan and Russia have thus far been left out of the ongoing four-party talks on the Korean Peninsula. Tensions could arise between the Four Party Talks mechanism and the other consultation mechanisms that have developed among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Comparatively, Japan has been more deeply involved than Russia in Korean affairs by virtue of its bilateral security alliance with the United States. Involved in both KEDO and TCOG (the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group), Japan also has shown interest in participating in the missile talks between the United States and North Korea. Pursing cooperative security through multilateral security fora allows Japan to play a more active role in regional security while allaying the concerns of neighboring countries and surmounting constitutional limitations on the use of force overseas in situations other than for self-defense.19

Since the intensive bilateral summits held in the fall 1997 between Northeast Asian countries, Japanese prime ministers have consistently encouraged the creation of additional multilateral dialogue processes. Japan has shown interest in the so called four power talks (the United States, Japan , China and Russia), arguing that peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region hinges upon these states building mutual ties based on confidence and cooperation. In addition, Japan also seeks a version of minilateralism that would include a series of trilaterals and quadrilaterals. Trilateral dialogues, such as the Trilateral Forum on North-Pacific Security Problems (with the United States, Japan and Russia) or the JAC Conference (Japan, China and the United States), provide Japan with an opportunity to solidify its alliance with the United States while simultaneously improving relations with other leading powers.20

In 1999, Korea and Japan agreed to creating a dialogue on regional security at their ministerial talks.21 The move followed Seoul’s proposal for the establishment of a multilateral consultative body to deal with security problems in Northeast Asia. Japan has advocated an institutionalized six party talks to replace the existing Four Party Talks, whereas South Korea prefers to keep the two separate, assigning the six party dialogues to cover issues other than building a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, among the critical issues to address is the need to distinguish between the role of a sub-regional security dialogue and the purposes of the Four Party Talks involving the two Koreas, China, and the United States.

Russia – Seeking To Retain Influence

Militarily and economically, Russia struggles to retain some level of parity with its neighbors. It remains highly dependent upon good relations with the U.S., China, and Japan, and so its foremost task in the region is preserving both the status quo and its own influence. Russia has therefore continued the U.S.SR’s support for a multilateral security cooperation regime.22 Russia’s main concern regarding the Korean issue is not to be left out of the process and to prevent U.S. or Chinese dominance on the Korean Peninsula. Hence, in 1994 it proposed an international conference in connection with the North Korean nuclear issue. Needless to say, Russia was upset with its exclusion from the subsequent four-party proposal.

After Moscow established relations with Seoul in 1990, its previous influence over North Korea steadily declined. In response, Moscow has attempted a more balanced policy toward Seoul and Pyongyang, signing a new friendship treaty with North Korea during Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov’s recent visit, and promoting again the establishment of a six party security mechanism. However, Russia today has only limited resources with which to help North Korea. North Korea, for its part, is concentrating its attention on the United States as a source of support and aid, while also trying to expand its own diplomatic ties to Japan, Italy, Canada, the Philippines, Brunei, Australia and France. To South Korea, however, full support from Russia would contribute greatly toward a truly effective arrangement on Korean peace. Hence, President Kim Dae-Jung requested Russia’s understanding and cooperation in his engagement policy toward the North and suggested that a six party security framework be initiated in the future.23

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was an emphatic gesture of Russia’s return to the Korea question. Russia is now aiming at strengthening bilateral relations in the face of new developments springing from the June inter-Korean summit and is positioning itself to recover its leverage over the two Koreas. Among the proposals suggested by Russia include working with South Korea to restart North Korea’s idle thermal power plants and steel mills by providing technology to normalize the North Korean facilities while South Korea supplies capital for the project.24 Besides restarting moribund industrial plants, Russia has shown keen interest in connecting the TSR (Trans-Siberian Railroad) lines with the North and South Korean railroad networks. In addition, Russia is also seeking to form a new trilateral strategic partnership with China and North Korea while emphasizing anti-unilateralism in dealing with the Korea issue. While welcoming the historic summit between the two Koreas and supporting the process of a Korea-led resolution, Russia has no reason to give up its support for multilateralism.

Conclusion: A Pragmatic Program for Multilateralism

Based on the preceding discussion, it may appear that the possibility of a sub-regional multilateralism remains slim due to some objections from the United States and a lack of common interest among the parties. However, despite the ubiquitous pessimism toward using multilateralism to resolve the Korea issue, we can find at least one positive trend in development of the reconciliatory atmosphere between the two Koreas. The two bilateral alliances between the United States and Japan and South Korea have enabled the three countries to cooperate on security matters as if a trilateral security arrangement existed, particularly in their response to the North Korean nuclear and missile issues.

Despite criticisms that multilateral security institutions are unlikely to result in tangible results, they allow counterparts in the region to meet regularly and exchange views. For example, track-two processes have been instrumental in creating and supplementing track-one processes. Multilateralism has also helped foster bilateralism by accommodating bilateral meetings during the multilateral forums. By the same token, the current bilateral structures of security relationships can advance multilateralism in the region by assuring a modicum of stability and creating imperatives for North Korea and China to participate in cooperative mechanisms. While multilateral cooperative security institutions are admittedly far less effective in defending against armed conflicts, they do have the ability to improve regional relations, promote confidence, and foster trust, which, in turn, should help ameliorate the security dilemma and the chances for accidental miscalculations.

Perhaps the most pragmatic solution is to pursue issue-specific and functionally-oriented ad hoc mini-multilateral institutions. This more limited approach, focusing on functional areas where cooperation could be expanded, offers states confidence that positive outcomes are likely, with only minimal costs if the process deteriorates.25 A regional agenda that goes beyond helping North Korea rehabilitate its ailing economy and respond to urgent environmental and maritime issues would help expand multilateral dialogue. Economic growth in North Korea, China, and Russia will only flourish with the removal of the old Cold-War barriers and the promotion of greater cross-border contacts, as was visible in the local farmers’ markets established in North Korea during the food crises of 1996 and 1997.

A multilateral dialogue might also address region-wide concerns such as implementation of the Law of the Sea Convention in Northeast Asia or multilateral approaches to nuclear reprocessing and plutonium management. The area of energy cooperation holds perhaps the most promise for multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia. All the major actors have an interest in pipelines to transport natural gas from Russia and yet all have developed varying notions of how such a regional pipeline grid might work. There are adequate amounts of Russian gas from Iskutsk and East Baikal to meet long-term projected needs of Japan and Korea, as well as China, however such a project would require enormous financing. Other issues that lend themselves to multilateral cooperation are the development of the Tumen River Basin and the Yellow Sea area, natural gas pipelines from Siberia and the Sea of Okhost, and environmental pollution. All could be managed by such a Northeast Asian entity.26

This promising, if limited, approach of “functional multilateralism” would also identify issues where there is an overlap of interests and finding mechanisms to address them. Such proposals as KADO (the Korean Peninsula Agricultural Development Organization) proposed by Ralph Cossa, PACATOM (the Pacific Atomic Energy Community) by Robert Manning, and other arrangements for economic and environmental cooperation are good examples. Another idea is that South Korea play the leading role in providing loans and credit guarantees to North Korea in exchange for concessions in the North’s missile program. This proposal would build interdependence between the North and the South, reduce the U.S. economic burden, and possibly include future cooperation with Japan, China and Russia. Over the long-term, it may facilitate the conversion of North Korea’s military sector into an industrial base.

Today’s complex North-South Korean bargaining situation and the opening of more exchanges between the two will create greater opportunities for peaceful change on the Korean Peninsula. Functional multilateralism, with moderate ambitions and concrete proposals, can capitalize upon this historic diplomatic opportunity. By giving an indication of their flexibility and good will, and by demonstrating anew to the South Korean public the difficulties of dealing with the North, the South’s leaders may also be able to gain public confidence-crucial to future efforts. Timing is important, and the stakes are high. Multilateral organizations seem to work when the underlying bilateral relationships are positive and when there are persuasive incentives for cooperation. Thus, the prospects for sub-regional dialogue will depend on national interests and on governmental will and leadership.

One final important element in the activation of multilateralism is the expansion of membership. Given that post-Cold War regional multilateral proposals emerged from such middle powers as Australia and Canada, and that North Korea currently places more weight on improving relations with these countries, it is vital to engage in any multilateral process countries as Canada, Australia and Mongolia. Despite cynicism dismissing these multilateral security dialogue processes as mere talk shops, the dialogues have been instrumental in reducing distrust and misunderstandings. It would be a good lesson to remember that history is created by vagaries, and not by status quo proponents. A multilayered, multi-dimensional forum of bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral, and multilateral security dialogues will play a positive function in supplementing, if not supplanting, the existing bilateral security architecture.