Special Report
The Northeast Asia Youth Peace Dialogue - Creating a safe space for frank and open discussions, Apr 17, 2013
The Young NEAYPD delegates had a chance to share their views with and learn from renowned academics, activists and media representatives at the pre-departure conference in Tokyo
As participants of Peace Boat's 79th Global Voyage enjoyed the sunny weather out on the open decks, a group of ten individuals was busy at work in the ship's Seminar Room. Seven youths from Hong Kong SAR, the People's Republic of China, South Korea and Japan, accompanied by two facilitators and a coordinating Peace Boat staff member, had a series of meetings and workshops onboard as part of the Northeast Asia Youth Peace Dialogue (NEAYPD). Co-organized by Peace Boat and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a consortium of civil society organizations working to prevent violent conflicts through dialogue, campaigning, lobbying and knowledge exchange, the NEAYPD addressed the sources of inter-state tensions in contemporary Northeast Asian society.

Ranging in age from mid-teens to thirties, the participants of the NEAYPD, Tiffany Cheng and Ronald Tsang from Hong Kong SAR, Feng Ao and Lu Botao from the People's Republic of China, Heo Inhae and Lee Sehyon from South Korea and Sasaki Moe from Japan, all hail from different walks of life. They were recommended by GPPAC member organizations in their respective countries due to their interest in and commitment to peace building in the region. The NEAYPD marked the first time each of these youth had experienced life on Peace Boat.

Park Yoonseo (left) and his fellow NEAYPD delegates listen intently to a speaker at the pre-departure conference in Tokyo
Park Yoonseo, also a youth from South Korea who participated as a co-facilitator and coordinator of the Dialogue, explains its relevance. "I think young people in Northeast Asia are becoming depressed that these tensions are all around them. We keep talking about history, what happened in the past but also we need to remember that history isn't just about what happened before - it also shows what might happen in the future. We have to encourage young people and make them realize that they also have the authority, the right, to rebuild from past mistakes and also to make history. They are the most important group of people in this world."

These sentiments are echoed by Peace Boat International Coordinator Meri Joyce, who considers the NEAYPD as a first step towards a network of youth working on peace building in Northeast Asia that can be supported by the broader GPPAC network and can also contribute creative new ideas to it. As the Northeast Asia Secretariat for GPPAC, Peace Boat does not take a particular position on current territorial issues troubling the region but rather aims to create opportunities for citizens or civil society groups in Northeast Asia to debate these issues by providing a safe open space where different views can be heard and respected. "That's why having such a borderless space such as the ship is very useful," Meri explains.

Participants of all ages and from diverse backgrounds joined the discussion with the NEAYPD delegates
"Peace Boat has a very unique role within the region as an organization that has a very long history of working with the grassroots on these Northeast Asian issues." explains Meri, who is also the Regional Liaison Officer for the Northeast Asian region of GPPAC. This role has been a focus since Peace Boat's establishment in 1983, as a programme for youth from Japan and the region to learn about historical issues and facilitate direct person-to-person exchange as a step towards grassroots diplomacy.

The NEAYPD is one of several newly developing peace education and capacity building efforts in the region focused specifically on youth. It was organised in collaboration with the Northeast Asian Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI), which has close links with the GPPAC network and in which Meri also participates as a Steering Committee member on behalf of Peace Boat. "There are many opportunities within Europe or the United States for having intensive, practical training on peace issues but the unique political backdrop of Northeast Asia and the lack of such opportunities within the region is what led to a group of civil society members deciding to start such a peace building training programme."

"Because of the different hierarchies that exist within society," Meri explains, "youth tend to be excluded from the reconciliation and peace building process. So, hopefully this can be a first step towards finding a way to more consistently involving them in broader GPPAC efforts."

Okumoto Kyoko moderates a discussion between the Northeast Asian Youth and the participants of the 79th Global Voyage
Facilitating the 5 day workshop onboard is Okumoto Kyoko, Professor of Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation at Osaka Jogakuin Daigaku (Osaka Women's University). Professor Okumoto strongly believes that face-to-face dialogue can be the key towards greater mutual understanding and sustainable peace. "I strongly believe that when people, especially young people, have this kind of experience and can deeply connect with other people, overcoming their differences, they achieve this sense of 'daijoubu'" she says, using the Japanese word for 'alright'. "They feel like everything will be okay. They know that they might disagree but that the friendships they have made can always be restored. This impact is long lasting - and when governments or politicians say certain negative things about other people, they still can stick to that sense of 'daijoubu' because they have met these others' themselves and know that they are alright."

Lee Sehyon explains why addressing mistakes made in the past can lead to a more stable peace
As tensions escalate in Northeast Asia due to disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Dokdo/Takeshima, the Dialogue is a timely endeavor, aimed at increasing understanding of the different interests, perceptions and points of view regarding the ownership of the disputed islands. Aside from the pressing issue of territories, the larger context of Northeast Asian relations was also discussed. The young participants acknowledged that the effects of the Second World War continued to linger and that the roots of present day misconceptions and prejudices lie in the past.

Lee Sehyon from Seoul acknowledges that "because of our history, it will take a lot of time to see tangible change in the future because we cannot start our work from nothing. We are always within the context of history. So somehow, we need to accept the reality." This opinion was also expressed by the participants of the 79th Global Voyage who had a chance to interact with the NEAYPD delegates over the course of their stay. Aside from the closed-door workshops held onboard, the participants participated in a pre-departure conference in Tokyo and also conducted several discussion sessions and presentations onboard from which everyone could benefit. Question and answer sessions with Peace Boat participants were open and frank and often quite emotional, especially when discussions touched on the impact of the Second World War on the Northeast Asian region.

Tiffany from Hong Kong shares her thoughts with an attentive audience
Meri Joyce points out that many people don't make the connection between what may be in their history textbooks, what happened in their grandparents' generation and how those actions still affect inter-state relations and perceptions today. "When we look at the stories we're hearing from the Korean and Chinese participants we see that history is very much present in the way they see Japan, she explains. "They are not sentiments you can just put away in a drawer marked 'the past,' but are very much a part of their reality. This is why such dialogues are important, especially in a place like Peace Boat where there are many people onboard from the older generation. We can directly make that link between what happened in the past and the way things are now."

A young Peace Boat participant poses with his new friend from Hong Kong, sixteen year old Ronald (right), the youngest delegate to the Northeast Asia Youth Peace Dialogue
The young participants of the NEAYPD left the ship in Hong Kong, the first port of call for Peace Boat's 79th Global Voyage. They take with them greater knowledge of the issues facing the region, a deeper empathy towards their Northeast Asian neighbors and friendships that they plan to continue to nurture. Feng Ao from Sichuan confesses, "Before this journey, I had the impression that Korean people and Japanese people were very serious all the time. I only learned about Japanese and Korean culture through their drama serials and they are always so serious and polite! But I can see from my new friends that Japanese people and Koreans are polite, yes, but they are funny and like to joke too."

"Actually," he adds, "They are just like me."

Lee Sehyon also plans to keep in touch with the other NEAYPD delegates and many Peace Boat participants. Perhaps more importantly, for him, the workshop and the experience onboard have left him with greater determination to work in the field of peace building, using his skills as an English-Korean interpreter where and when he can. He says, "As I study history, I see that it takes a lot of time for a very simple change to happen but the truth is, it will come. So, I will do as much as I can here and now because just waiting for the change to come in the future, will not work. We need to lay the foundation step by step."