In the first meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, foreign ministers and officials will gather in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan on Wednesday to discuss tense situations on the Korean Peninsula and between India and Pakistan, plus other regional issues.

The major task of ARF, the sole intergovernmental security forum in the Asia-Pacific region, is to come up with stronger measures to fight international terrorism. The forum comprises 23 nations: the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and 13 other Asia-Pacific countries, including the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and North Korea.

North Korea, which joined ARF two years ago, is expected to send Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun to Brunei. Pyongyang has agreed to Tokyo’s proposal that their foreign ministers meet, for the first time in two years, in Brunei. At the same time, Pyongyang has informed Seoul of its intention to resume North-South ministerial meetings. Now the focal point is whether Paek will hold direct dialogues with his American and South Korean counterparts.

In their July 13 meeting in Seoul, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and her South Korean counterpart, Choi Sung Hong, agreed that the ARF meeting will be an important opportunity for Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to coordinate closely in pushing dialogue with North Korea.

Japanese-North Korean negotiations on diplomatic normalization, centered on solving the mystery over the suspected abduction of a dozen Japanese to North Korea since the 1970s, have made little progress following the bilateral Red Cross talks in April.

North-South Korea talks have also made little headway since a bilateral summit in 2000. The shootout last month between North and South Korean patrol boats marred prospects for peace between the two countries and forced the U.S. administration to cancel a scheduled July 10 Pyongyang visit by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs.

Pyongyang has refused to let the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect its nuclear facilities. Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, such inspections are a condition for an international consortium’s installation of light-water reactors in North Korea. Meanwhile, the Bush administration in the U.S. has taken a tough stance toward North Korea. If there is no change in either country’s policies, tension is likely to mount again on the Korean Peninsula.

ARF should take advantage of Wednesday’s ministerial meeting to encourage North Korea to take part in the international community. If North Korea avoids direct dialogues with South Korea and the U.S., it will face international isolation.

Topping the agenda Wednesday will be ways of fighting terrorism under the group’s framework as well as cooperation among participating nations. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, ARF has been trying to promote cooperation among members in fighting terrorism in view of the security implications for the Asia-Pacific region.

In April, ARF held its first antiterrorism workshop in Bangkok to share information, knowledge and experience. In October, Japan will host a second workshop in Tokyo and will probably explain its experience in preparing antiterror measures for the recent World Cup soccer tournament, which it cohosted with South Korea. The meeting will also consider international cooperation among law-enforcement agencies and ARF’s own antiterror measures.

In Brunei, there is expected to be agreement that all ARF members should share information and cooperate in boosting security, and strengthen inspections of banks. ARF plans to improve dialogue and cooperation in a three-step approach of building confidence, promoting preventive diplomacy and improving ways to solve conflicts.

Confidence-building has made considerable progress through dialogues on security, exchanges of defense personnel, publication of defense white papers and presentations of defense policy papers.

At their previous meeting, held in Hanoi, ministers agreed on eight principles of preventive diplomacy — defined as diplomatic and political measures that sovereign nations undertake by agreement. The principles include compliance with international law. The ministers concluded that, for ARF to develop, international understanding regarding preventive diplomacy is essential. Thus ARF has advanced from confidence-building to preventive diplomacy.

However, it remains to be seen whether ARF, which groups nations with different political systems, will be able to push preventive diplomacy while facing possible conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. Some ASEAN officials are said to be skeptical that ARF can maintain its momentum.

To streamline and expedite ARF activities, participating nations agreed at the Hanoi meeting that the chairman’s role should be strengthened. Since ARF, whose annual meeting is hosted by different countries, has no permanent secretariat, it is unable to deal with the fast-changing international security environment. On Wednesday, proposals are expected to be made for strengthening the chairman’s role and having the ASEAN secretariat assist the chairman.

There is widespread criticism that ARF has little interest in Northeast Asian affairs. Japan has been pushing the idea of creating a six-nation subgrouping of ARF — Japan and Russia joining North and South Korea, the U.S. and China — to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Japan has been hoping to engage North Korea in ARF-based dialogue.

Japanese Foreign Ministry officials say one option would be to create subregional groups to focus on specific issues. That may be a realistic approach to expanding ARF into an “Asian Regional Forum” — from the ASEAN Regional Forum.

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