Seoul's ambitious initiative for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia drew mixed reactions from experts from around the world as they examined the region's security landscape and discussed ways to foster trust at a conference in Seoul on Wednesday.
About 20 renowned foreign and security policy specialists took part in the one-day event jointly hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The meeting was designed to assess President Park Geun-hye's Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and what it can take from Europe's experience.
The scheme envisions a long-term trust-building process among neighbours including North Korea, starting from climate change, antiterrorism and other nonpolitical matters and ultimately progressing to security cooperation.
While agreeing to the need for confidence-building measures amid high territorial and historical tension, many participants voiced skepticism over the feasibility of the much-trumpeted initiative.
"I fully agree with the principles of trust-building but the problem is we don't know how to do it," said Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
To put it into practice, he stressed the need for "specific steps" and better inter-Korean relations.
"In Korea, you have to build trust first with your northern brother," Jin added.
With a better channel, we can restart negotiations for a free trade agreement between Korea, Japan and China, and then we can have some kind of resumption of denuclearization talks on North Korea in Beijing."
Modeled on the Helsinki Accords of Europe during the Cold War, Park has floated the so-called "Seoul Process" as an antidote to what she called the Asian paradox, referring to the region's escalating territorial and historical tensions despite growing economic interdependence.
It is the centerpiece of Park's foreign policy agenda, coupled with her "trustpolitik" approach calling for reengaging Pyongyang while maintaining a robust deterrence.
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, called Park's proposal a "welcome effort," but noted that previous plans, such as ASEAN, APEC and even the stalled six-party forum bore little fruit in the face of widespread nationalism, animosity and mistrust among neighbours.
The initiative also faces a daunting challenge as Japan's unabated revisionist push is deepening its territorial and historical spats with South Korea and China.
"My observation is that this is a very difficult part of the world to bring a common security mechanism," Paal said.
Nonetheless, he suggested a number of doable items including a fishing agreement or research on hydrocarbon resources, which he said would help raise NAPCI's viability "without trying to do the impossible, which is actually a forced resolution of difficult sovereignty claims."
"There are a number of disputes in the region that are not susceptible to easy or even very difficult resolution," said Paal, who advised former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on national security.
"This is something that a middle power is in the best position to do."
Ian Anthony, director of the Stockholm-headquartered SIPRI, pointed to a rapid militarization of Asia, which is the only region where military spending has risen in real terms every year over the last decade in line with their growing political and economic clout.
Twenty-five years ago, Asia spent around a fifth of Europe's entire military expenditure and a quarter of that of the US The current figures are about the same between Asia and Europe, he said, citing his institute's data.
"But now because of the (economic) success, there is much greater self-confidence which has translated into what seems to be assertiveness," Anthony said.
"This is why it's so important that a process of building stable and peaceful relationships in Asia takes root and continues. … Things can escalate very quickly if you don't have a sound basis for understanding.
Despite concerns, Yun pinned high hopes on NAPCI as a "thorough, practical and enforceable" approach which could help bolster existing cooperative mechanisms while taking into account the regional situation with other participating nations as "co-architects and co-owners."
"It is a process-oriented approach in which discussions and cooperation are accumulated at a comfortable speed starting with countries with willingness and capacity, and in areas where cooperation is feasible," he said in his keynote speech.
"However, considering the present circumstances in Northeast Asia, it is difficult to anticipate a hard agenda to make progress ahead of cooperation on soft agendas. … Essentially, the mobilization of political will is needed."