How Can the Women, Peace and Security Agenda Be More Relevant in Northeast Asia?


2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the landmark United Nations Security Council resolution on Women, Peace and Security. What still needs to evolve in countries in Northeast Asia to realise the resolution’s goals?   

Women Cross DMZ at a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Seoul, 25 May 2018.

What changes have there been to peace and security in the Northeast Asian region since 2000, the year that the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted UNSCR 1325, its first resolution on “Women, Peace and Security”?

The resolution has been considered ground-breaking by many active in civil society organisations (CSOs), as well as policy-makers and UN officials, being the first UN Security Council resolution to foreground “gender” as an essential element in maintaining international peace and security. It was also one of the few UN Security Council resolutions to be heavily influenced by CSOs from inception to adoption, particularly those groups advocating for gender equality and peace.

Has peace in Northeast Asia been promoted by UNSCR 1325 and the nine subsequent UNSCR resolutions up to 2019 that comprise the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda to date?

National Action Plans for Implementation of the WPS Agenda: Northeast Asia

UNSCR 1325 recognises that sexual violence in armed conflicts or their aftermath is a crucial peace and security issue, unlike the common belief that sexual violence is a trivial problem that is all part of armed conflict. The resolution calls for the UN, UN member states, NGOs, and parties to armed conflicts to consider “gender” when dealing with conflicts, and in carrying out peace-building at all levels.

To do this, the WPS Agenda identifies four areas for implementation: protection of women and girls from sexual violence related to conflicts; prevention of sexual violence in conflicts; participation of women at all levels of peace and security policies and practices; and relief and recovery.

One of the indicators intended to assess the implementation and impacts of the WPS Agenda is a National Action Plan created by each member state. Such plans provide a framework and detail policies for implementing UNSCR 1325 (and sometimes UNSCR 1820 [2008], which articulates that sexual violence is used as a tactic of war). Currently, 86 countries have devised a National Action Plan, which represents about 45% of UN member states.

However, in the Northeast Asia region, only the Republic of Korea and Japan have created National Action Plans. The Republic of Korea adopted its first plan in 2014. This was later reviewed and revised in a second plan that started in 2018. Japan adopted its  first plan in 2015, ending in 2018. A second edition followed, running from 2019-2022.

Both countries’ National Action Plans place greater emphasis on applying WPS to official development aid as donor countries, meaning that implementation of the WPS Agenda is seen as the provision of assistance to countries in conflict, or at the post-conflict stage. The Republic of Korea’s plan also addresses some of the issues that originated in wars that the country has been a part of, such as assistance to women defectors from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the “comfort women” issue or military sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Asia-Pacific War. Additionally, both plans include contributions covering personnel dispatched to peace-keeping operations in conflict zones.

Critiques of Existing National Action Plans

Although an increasing number of member states have developed a National Action Plan as part of their implementation of the WPS Agenda, the process has been slow. As such, CSOs that were behind the adoption of UNSCR 1325 have continued their advocacy on the WPS Agenda, criticising the lack of political will within the UN and among UN member states.  

However,  governments that have developed a National Action Plan are not immune from criticism either, regarding their understanding of the relation between promoting gender equality and peace. Twenty years ago, when CSOs formed a coalition to realise the idea of a UN Security Council resolution on gender, their analyses highlighted the need to tackle the interplay between patriarchy and war, which they hoped UNSCR 1325 would accomplish. This hope seems to have barely survived.

It is clear when looking at the existing National Action Plans that many developed countries’ plans share similar leanings to those set out by the Republic of Korea and Japan. Almost no attention is paid to gender, peace and security as domestic issues, while a narrow focus is adopted on the provision of aid to conflict-affected countries as part of foreign policy.

This situation led me to realise that three major “concerns” or inadequacies about the perception of “conflicts” lie behind the unmet aspirations of feminist peace activists: a narrow application of the WPS Agenda, limited only to zones directly affected by conflict; a failure to address colonialism as a root cause of present conflicts waged in many former colonised countries; and lack of a cogent perspective on militarism.

As part of the mandates for the WPS Agenda under UNSCR 1888 (2010), then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon established the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, which specifies policies to eliminate sexual violence in conflict. While the activities of this office have helped to elevate the issue in the international community, the focused geographic areas listed as part of its remit demonstrate the limitation of a narrow definition of conflict-affected areas, confined as they are to such countries as Democratic Republic of the Congo often characterised as one of the gravest conflict zones, Mali, or Syria.

Given the deteriorating conditions in these areas under conflict, there is no doubt that help is crucial. Yet, strongly emphasising the brutality of sexual violence may reduce the scope of what “conflict-related” means. Furthermore, the lack of historical analysis of the root causes of conflicts in these former colonised countries, and the relation between gender and colonialism, make these policies insufficient for the fundamental resolution of conflict, which should be the very foundation of the WPS Agenda.

Without seeking to prevent and abolish conflict itself, one might ask in a similar way to feminist peace activist Cora Weiss: “Are we only trying to make war safer for women?”

Critique of Japan’s National Action Plan

These “concerns” over the perception of conflicts adopted in the policies and discourse of the WPS Agenda describe problems with Japan’s National Action Plan well.

In developing its first plan in 2013, the Japanese government, a latecomer to this process, consulted a few scholars, including myself, on how to proceed. After some discussions, the government agreed to convene a CSO consultation group comprising about 20 researchers and practitioners related to the WPS Agenda. Along with development aid assistance, those of us who were feminist peace activists and scholars insisted that the Japanese government face further problems of sexual violence in armed conflict, namely the issue of “comfort women”, which remains a hindrance to achieving peace and security in Northeast Asia. This is not a past issue but very much a contemporary peace and security matter, brought about by the interlocking of militarism, Japan’s colonialism, and violence against women.

Another long history of sexual violence related to conflicts also exists in Japan: sexual violence committed by US soldiers stationed in Okinawa. As the southernmost territory colonised by the modern state of Japan in late 19th century, the archipelago of Okinawa was directly occupied by the US military after the defeat of Japan in Asia-Pacific War in 1945 until 1972. Furthermore, with the agreement of successive Japanese governments, the US military has now remained stationed there for over seven decades, waging wars in Asia and beyond.

Japan may not be under armed conflict, but it has been deeply affected by the wars the United States has conducted. Communities within Japan have also been directly impacted by those wars. Sexual violence against women and girls, men and boys in Okinawa committed by US military personnel has been and remains a core issue of the long-term stationing of US soldiers in Okinawa.

Despite the CSOs’ insistence, our recommendations were not adopted in the Japanese government’s National Action Plan and neither of these issues included, raising doubts and misgivings among feminist peace activists about the meaning and purpose of the plan, and its contribution to peace and security in the region.  

Possibilities for Northeast Asian Regional Cooperation: Ensuring a Gender Analysis of Peace and Security

Given the limitations of National Action Plans, how can the WPS Agenda be made more relevant to the Northeast Asian region? To start with, WPS Agenda implementation efforts need not to be confined to individual National Action Plans. Rather, they should go beyond national borders and seek to nurture regional cooperation. In fact, some CSO networks and UN agency-supported networks for peace and security have already begun work in the region, and could provide arenas for realising the WPS Agenda for durable peace. 

For example, the Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) has a northeast regional network with CSOs from various cities such as Ulaanbaatar, Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo, Beijing, and others. Their focus includes denuclearization of the region. In such activities, attempts to integrate a gender analysis have begun by questioning the patriarchal nature of nuclear deterrence theory that regards use of force as the primary method of security for a nation.       

The Republic of Korea-based network, Korean Women’s Movement for Peace, has called for implementation of the WPS Agenda in the peace process for finally ending the Korean War, as well as improving inter-Korea relations. Their efforts have included the creation of a transnational platform for the WPS Agenda with such feminist peace organisations as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and US-based Women Cross DMZ.

The UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Northeast Asia has recently taken steps towards focused CSO-UN cooperation for implementation of WPS in the region. Here, such issues as military sexual slavery, Korean peace processes, or militarism are being recognised as the WPS Agenda.

In these network activities, a gender perspective is essential in analysing the obstacles to peace and security. That means analysing the root causes of conflicts in the region and contemplating how patriarchy, militarism and colonialism have prevented the achievement of peace and security. It does not mean merely increasing the number of women in different official positions, which is the most common form of implementation of the WPS Agenda when it is translated into measurable policy.

Indeed, integrating a gender perspective in international peace and security frameworks means analysing the gendered power structure as well as inequalities among nations. This is the deeper project needed to promote peace and security in Northeast Asia.