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  • Beatrice Giovannoni

The Ulaanbaatar Process: A Civil Society Approach to Building Peace in Northeast Asia

With a nuclear threat looming on the Korean Peninsula, civil society actors on the ground develop novel channels to promote peace. In this article, a second-year EPS student Beatrice Giovannoni explores one of such channels, the Ulaanbaatar Process, based on a first-hand experience gained during her internship.


Provided by GPPAC-NEA, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict network of peacebuilders in Northeast Asia


The Ulaanbaatar Process is a civil society dialogue platform that aims to promote sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula and the whole Northeast Asia region. The project is carried out by the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict in collaboration with NGOs from the region, and it is co-funded by the European Commission. By bringing together peacebuilders and international stakeholders from around the world, the Ulaanbaatar Process displays the importance of continuing to support civil society-led peace efforts worldwide.


What is the Ulaanbaatar Process?


A compelling story of peace, dialogue, and cooperation is unfolding in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. During my internship at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), I had the opportunity to work on the Ulaanbaatar Process, a unique civil society platform that aims to achieve peace and stability in Northeast Asia by opening novel channels of communication for the peace actors in the region. The three-year project was initiated by the GPPAC Northeast Asia Network in collaboration with the Japanese NGO Peace Boat and the Mongolian NGO Blue Banner. Being based in Mongolia, one of the world’s Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones, the Ulaanbaatar Process creates a safe space where peacebuilders and experts from South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States come together to discuss present and future avenues for achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. What is most remarkable about this project is its underlying regional approach. This means acknowledging that the tensions irradiating from the Korean War are not confined to the Korean Peninsula, but have consequences for all countries in Northeast Asia. For this reason, the participation of stakeholders from the whole region is essential to develop shared solutions and create sustainable peace.


All voices matter: an inclusive approach to peacebuilding in Northeast Asia


The Korean War is not over. The 1953 armistice that ended the open hostilities between South Korea and North Korea never led to a formal peace agreement between the two sides. Seventy years later, the prospects of a lasting peace appear flimsy as both countries invest heavily in strengthening their military capacity. Tensions were recently heightened in February 2023 when the DPRK launched an intercontinental ballistic missile followed by two tactical nuclear rockets. In this worrisome setting, a regional dialogue platform like the Ulaanbataar Process is most needed. The project offers the opportunity to build trust, create partnerships, and favours an open dialogue to overcome the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative that has characterised international relations in Northeast Asia. The platform allows Northeast Asia civil society actors to maintain regular contact with representatives from North Korea, which would not be possible outside the safe environment provided by the GPPAC network. In fact, the key to the success of the Ulaanbaatar Process is the notion of inclusivity. This entails the involvement of peace actors from the whole region in the platform’s efforts, allowing for exchanges of ideas and best practices for effective peacebuilding actions on an equal footing. But there is more. Inclusivity also means listening to those voices that are too often excluded from decision-making and peace processes. Therefore, including women and youth peacebuilders is a core aspect of the project because it is necessary to develop a gender-conscious and inter-generational understanding of peace in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula.


The network approach: peacebuilders promoting regional learning and cooperation


Regular meetings among the peacebuilders and civil society organisations that are part of the Ulaanbaatar Process occur yearly in Ulaanbaatar. The meeting of September 2022 had something special to it, as it was the first time that participants could meet in person since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants discussed the main challenges the region is facing, including the threat of climate change, the increasing tensions among global powers, and the problem of ever more unstable spaces for peace and democracy in the region. The multiplicity of perspectives and the expertise brought in by local civil society actors took the tangible shape of the shared publication Peace and Security in Northeast Asia. This represents a tangible and inspiring outcome of the network approach that characterises the Ulaanbaatar Process. By bringing together peacebuilders from South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, China, Russia, and the United States, the publication offers a nuanced picture of the many challenges Northeast Asia faces nowadays. Through the authors’ unique expertise and diverse perspectives, the book addresses crucial themes such as the denuclearisation of Northeast Asia, the relationship between the United States and North Korea, as well as the importance of women and youth-led peace movements in the region. Understanding the complexity of this reality through the eyes of those that experience it in the first person is a fundamental step to finding shared solutions to common problems. This represents the core strength of the Ulaanbaatar Process and the GPPAC network that fuels it.


Northeast Asia and beyond: the Ulaanbaatar Process meets the European Union


During the 2022 Ulaanbaatar Process meeting, participants renewed their shared objective to render Northeast Asia a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone and the willingness to continue supporting each other in joint advocacy efforts. But the work of the Ulaanbaatar Process goes beyond the Northeast Asia region. Since 2021, the European Commission has co-funded the project through its Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP). For this reason, a delegation of members from the GPPAC Northeast Asia network met with decision-makers and civil society representatives in Brussels and The Hague. The European Union is, at its core, an ongoing project for peace in a continent that was plagued for centuries by conflicts. Therefore, promoting peace and preventing conflict globally through dialogue and partnerships with local civil society actors is a critical component of the EU development policies. By continuing to support the Ulaanbaatar Process, the EU and the broader international community can contribute to resolving the hostilities, the tension, and the nuclear threats that, for too long, have hindered the accomplishment of lasting and sustainable peace in Northeast Asia.


Conclusion


Contributing as an intern to the Ulaanbaatar Process was an incredibly enriching experience. Working alongside local peacebuilders and civil society leaders from Northeast Asia showed me that, even when governments appear stuck in their positions and diplomatic efforts are stalled, people on the ground continue to work for a meaningful change. The time I spent amongst them taught me that no action is too small and no idea is too far-fetched if people are willing to turn it into a reality. Even in a region where tensions are high and the nuclear threat is a reality, it is possible to create spaces such as the Ulaanbaatar Process, where constructive dialogues and mutual trust can flourish. Local peacebuilders in Northeast Asia and worldwide are the ones building the bridges connecting local communities to decision-makers and supranational powers. By creating opportunities for international dialogue and cooperation, such as the Ulaanbaatar Process, they pave the way for a more peaceful future.


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