Building a Culture of Peace in Northeast Asia

A Chinese researcher once resignedly confided in me that he thought a future war between China and Japan to be inevitable. According to such a view, the arc of history amid longstanding grievances and territorial disputes narrows the odds on this eventuality. And although Northeast Asia has “enjoyed” a hard peace since the end of the Korean War over six decades ago, a spike in nationalist discourses, growing militarism including North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat, and consolidating alliances point to an uncertain regional future.

But while it is commonplace to observe that the Cold War never ended in Northeast Asia, it is also true that the region is markedly different than it was just two decades ago. Today’s young generation might be shaped by the experiences, fears, and prejudices of their parents and grandparents, but they are also being influenced by new opportunities and the need to confront shared challenges.

Flourishing Exchanges

Having long flocked to the United States, Britain, and Australia to gain a Western education, Northeast Asian students are increasingly looking to study in neighboring countries for reasons of cost and proximity. As China, South Korea, and Japan seek to establish themselves as globally competitive educational hubs, universities in the region have launched ambitious recruitment drives. Nearly 100,000 Chinese students are already studying in Japan, while the number of Japanese and South Korean students in China has tripled over the course of a decade. For its part, the South Korean government aims to almost triple the country’s international student intake by 2023, with Chinese students fueling much of this growth.

Compared to just a decade ago, tourism is also booming throughout the region. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, Japan received nearly 22 million foreign visitors in 2016, with nearly 50 percent of those coming from China and South Korea. South Korea in particular has witnessed an explosion of Chinese visitors who account for 47 percent of the market share – with visitor numbers increasing from just over 700,000 in 2005 to over 7.5 million in 2016.

Cultural exports are also on the rise. The “Korean Wave” of popular culture has been a huge phenomenon in China and Japan. For instance in December, the animated film “Your Name” became the biggest ever grossing Japanese film in China. And while Chinese cultural exports have so far been unable to match the popularity of its neighbors, growth markets include the entertainment games industry. Protests by nationalist elements aside, all of these find certain appeal among young people.

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of bilateral and regional civil society-based initiatives to bring youth together to change negative perceptions of each other and chart common ground. Youth exchange was identified as a priority issue by country leaders at the Sixth Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit in November 2015, with a trilateral youth summit involving university students and future young leaders convened the following August in Japan. Extended to also Mongolia and Russia, the Northeast Asia Young Leaders’ Forum 2016 brought together over 70 participants from five countries under the auspices of the Association of North East Asia Regional Governments.

A vision document by Northeast Asian youth at a UNDP-sponsored forum in 2013, held in line with the post-2015 development framework, identified priority issues as: gender equality, tackling inequality and discrimination, education, environmental degradation, and good governance, as well as active cultural interaction for peace and security. More specific issue-focused initiatives also exist such as the Northeast Asia Youth Environment Network, established in 2005 under UNEP, which connects local youth organizations across the region.

Accordingly, the region’s youth – with the notable exception of North Korea – are growing up in an era of unprecedented mobility, cultural exchanges, rise of digital communities, and growth of transnational governmental and civil society initiatives.

Furthermore, deepening economic integration and non-traditional security challenges ranging from pandemic diseases to climate change and air pollution expand each state’s stake in peaceably managing the regional commons. Such forces and dynamics foster conditions for constructive dialogue and cooperation between the governments and peoples of Northeast Asia.

Threat of Apathy?

At the same time, however, low civic participation in politics among youth in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan points to a deficit of trust in institutions and a disconnection with conventional political structures and parties. While some observers see such “apathy” as a threat to a vibrant democracy, others see the potential for new kinds of bottom-up political engagement and movements to develop.

Other inconvenient truths may also belie the emergence of a budding generation of peaceniks. For instance, a 2015 report by the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies reveals increased South Korean youth detachment from North Korea whilst growing conservatism on hard security issues.

Continued division of the Peninsula and evolution of separate identities will likely have significant implications for policymakers in the future, with reunification being seen as increasingly unattractive and less of a priority. There is also a trend towards strengthening subnational identities among young people in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Creating Shared Narratives

Conventional wisdom dictates that the passing of the wartime generation coupled with increasing intra-regional exchanges will gradually attenuate differences. However, as Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute points out, unless young leaders of tomorrow are able to create shared narratives and common discourse, these will remain vulnerable to nationalist rhetoric and provincialism. Indeed, as Brexit showed Europe, even decades of hard-won regional integration and identity building cannot be taken for granted.

Adopted in December 2015, the UN Resolution on Youth, Peace, and Security recognizes the urgent need to engage and enhance the role of young peacebuilders. If given sufficient opportunities by governments, Northeast Asia’s youth can help to create a counter narrative to narrowly conceived nationalism – one which fosters tolerance, understanding, and visions of a shared future predicated on common interests. Currently low, a trans-regional identity and outlook may even come to take root in coming decades.

Peace is by no means a certainty; but neither is anything inevitable about war.

Alec Forss in an editor at ISDP and is currently pursuing an MA in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University.