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SEOUL — Asia is gradually moving toward a security framework dramatically different from that in Europe, consisting of processes rather than institutions between and among nation-states — many of which have outstanding political, ideological or territorial conflicts. And in Asia, unlike the case in Europe, the principle of nonintervention in sovereign affairs has been traditionally taken as a mantra — particularly for China — whether under the guise of humanitarian intervention or conflict prevention. (In this regard, it remains unclear whether Indonesian intervention in East Timor constitutes a one-time exception or the harbinger of a new process.)

The process that began in Southeast Asia three decades ago as an economic association between six Southeast Asia states — Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines — now has 10 members, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and a partially ostracized Myanmar.

But equally significant is the way ASEAN has grown externally as well as internally. ASEAN Plus Three incorporates the three major northeast Asian countries, China, Japan and South Korea, as ASEAN dialogue partners. These nations, unable to form a Northeast Asia regional security dialogue, have latched onto ASEAN as a next best choice.

Further removed, ASEAN has reached westward to extra-regional — but nonetheless Asia-Pacific powers — Australia and Canada, as well as eastward to the European Union, making each a dialogue partner. The former are both APEC members while the latter forms the European arm of ASEM (the biannual Asia-Europe meeting).

The most creative initiative at this year’s ASEAN meeting was the adoption of the so-called troika formula, under which the sitting, future and previous chairs are empowered to bring an immediate security threat in the region to the attention of ASEAN members in a manner somewhat analogous to the prerogative of the U.N. secretary general to bring a threat to international peace and security to the attention of the U.N. Security Council.

Externally, the most innovative initiative to emerge from ASEAN has been the ASEAN Regional Forum, an ASEAN spinoff that combines the ASEAN countries plus all its dialogue partners, and primarily focused on maintaining security in the Asia-Pacific region. It is to this body that North Korea was invited and formally inducted in Bangkok last week as its 23rd member.

ARF has clearly broken new ground in moving beyond the economic to a dual focus on security and economic concerns. And in providing the only venue outside of the United Nations in which North Korea is a participant rather than a recipient, it has made an important contribution to regional security. In effect, the two Koreas now have a place to go to and an audience to listen whether to air grievances or solicit support for cooperative undertakings of an economic, political or security character.

The bilateral meetings at the foreign-minister level that took place in Bangkok between North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun and his South Korean, Japanese and U.S. counterparts augur well for ARF as a forum for constructive engagement focusing on confidence-building and preventive diplomacy. However, because ARF functions on the basis of consensus decision-making, it must earn its wings every meeting. And it must tread carefully, for the two Koreas will brook no foreign-authored formula for changes in peninsula political or security arrangements.

Like ASEAN, ARF is also reaching out beyond the region, sharing information experience and expertise with counterparts such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States and the U.N., as well as encouraging its members to annually provide an individual security outlook.

In a region where the absence of a regional security structure is at once notable and regrettable, ARF appears prepared to render a most important service. In addition to its unique regional role, it has broadened the concept of security to include economic, social and human components — in particular with reference to the impact of globalization. Such an approach is all to the good.

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