At the present time, the focus of attention regarding multilateral security
cooperation in Northeast Asia is on the four-party talks between the two
Koreas, China and the United States, as well as the six-party talks involving
those four as well as Japan and Russia.
Now that North Korea has shown signs of changing its foreign-policy
outlook, there is a possibility that the talks might actually take place, so
making it necessary to clarify the significance of each of the respective
The four-party talks were proposed by former President Kim Young Sam
of South Korea, with U.S. support, as a way to draw North Korea into direct
talks with the South. Until then, the North had insisted on bypassing the
South and building relations with the United States first. The talks were held
for the first time at the end of 1997, with their main objective being to
change the Korean War armistice into a treaty guaranteeing peace and
In contrast, the six-party talks were suggested by the former prime minister
of South Korea, Kim Jong Pil, and Japan's former prime minister, the late
Keizo Obuchi. Although the idea was brought up again by Japan's Foreign
Minister Youhei Kono on a recent visit to China, the talks have yet to take
place. There is also a proposal for a six-plus conference, including Canada
The primary aim of the six-party talks is to build confidence by increasing
military transparency through an expanded security dialogue. It is also hoped
that the talks will explore ideas for a more systematic approach to various
issues, such as creating a regional agreement on nonproliferation, or making
the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free. On the premise that detente between
North and South Korea will move ahead, the significance of the six-party
talks will most likely come to be reconsidered in the long term.
The South Korean government is supportive of such measures for
multilateral security cooperation, as it is aware of the need to balance
relations with the United States as well as China. For reunification to take
place peacefully in the future, it is a prerequisite that China does not
disagree. Hence Seoul must take care that China does not suspect the
U.S.-South Korean security alliance to be one of containment against China.
In South Korea, the view is quite strong that the withdrawal of U.S. forces
after North-South reunification will bring instability. In order to ease such
fears, Seoul should make an even greater effort to create a system for
multilateral security cooperation to complement the U.S.-Korean security
On the other hand, North Korea clearly placed a priority on furthering
relations with the United States before the North-South summit meeting. The
underlying belief was that as long as their relations with America were firm,
Japan and South Korea would follow in line. The North may also have
feared that if it agreed to a six-party meeting, it would end up being isolated
in relative terms.
However, as we have witnessed, North Korea has cooperated in the
Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and has joined
the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), suggesting it is now prepared to
consider using a multilateral framework when it feels it will not be isolated.
A framework for multilateral security cooperation will be less
objectionable to those reluctant to participate if it is not too restrictive.
Countries such as the United States, China and Russia have changed their
views, and have realized it is better to make use of what they can.
As for Japan, there is a growing recognition that in the middle to long
term, some sort of system for multilateral security cooperation is necessary,
partly to avoid being knocked around in the power game played mainly by
the United States and China. International politics tends to create strange
bedfellows in any framework but nonetheless, the creation of a framework -
for multilateral security cooperation has great significance.
The U.S.-South Korea and the U.S.-Japan security alliances, both legacies
of the Cold War, should be adjusted, at least functionally, to fit the post-Cold
War world. U.S.-China relations should also not be allowed to deteriorate to
a point where they get out of control. To meet these two goals, Japan and
South Korea, although they may each have their own particular interests,
must work together to turn the framework for multilateral security
cooperation into a firmer system.
This is a task neither Japan nor South Korea can accomplish on their own,
but if they lead the way through cooperation, the chance of institutionalizing
multilateral security cooperation will indeed become high.