[Outlook]Change is inevitableThe tectonic plates that form the foundation of the political world in Northeast Asia, especially those around the Korean Peninsula, have started to shift. The alignment of these plates has sustained stability in the past half century, but now they are taking new positions.
The U.S.-led triangular alliance in the southern portion of the region and the former Soviet-led triangular alliance in the northern segment were both profoundly influenced by the collapse of communism during 1989-91 period.
However, Northeast Asia has not fully dismantled the apparatus of the Cold War because the Korean Peninsula remains separated. It is an irony of history that North Korea’s nuclear crisis has caused changes in the political crust of the region that will create a new order. Some say that a crisis is simply a good opportunity and this crisis qualifies.
The plate that represents Japan is moving in the most organized way. Japan recently signed a joint security declaration with Australia that resembles an alliance. In doing so, it increased its defense and security. Japan does not hide its intention to expand the joint declaration with Australia into a security system that binds together the United States, Japan, Australia and India.
Japan’s desire to strengthen its alliance with the United States is, in the short term, a response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, while, from a long-term perspective, it is responding to China’s aspirations to be a military superpower. Later this month, Japan will deploy a PAC3 surface-to-air missile system at an air force base near Tokyo, as part of the defense protocol that it has jointly developed with the United States. The PAC3s at the base and the SM-3 missiles loaded on Aegis cruisers will be available to shoot down North Korea’s missiles. Japan will complete the missile defense system by 2010.
China’s tectonic plates are moving in two different directions. The country intends to enhance its relations with Russia while improving its ties with Japan. As the United States has established a military presence in Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan, which are in the backyard of China and the front yard of Russia, China and Russia have started to form a joint security system.
The two countries have resolved long-standing border disputes and held joint military exercises. President Hu Jintao of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia now meet a couple of times a year and discuss important issues.
China-Japan relations were damaged when former Prime Minister Zunichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine, but the ties are being restored. In October last year, a joint statement released by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Hu Jintao did not include anything about Taiwan or Japan’s dark history, revealing that China wants to restore its ties with Japan.
Meanwhile, the plates of North Korea and the United States are moving rapidly toward each other. Whether it is a new strategy or simply a tactical shift, President George W. Bush’s stance on North Korea has been through a seismic change.
The United States had long refused to have a bilateral meeting with North Korea, but then officials from Washington met in Berlin with their counterparts from Pyongyang, leading to the agreement reached at the six-party talks in Beijing.
Under this agreement, working-level meetings were held between the two countries and they have even discussed normalizing ties immediately, skipping the interim step of setting up liaison offices. It appears that the initiative in the six-party talks is now in the hands of North Korea and the United States. It no longer seems important whether its nuclear test was a success or failure, what’s crucial is Pyongyang’s diplomatic triumph in the aftermath, from which it has gained a confidence that can now be detected in North Korea’s every move.
In this region, the fault line between North Korea and the United States used to be the problem. But when the plates that are now in motion settle, the fault lines will lie between South Korea and the United States, and South Korea and Japan.
South Korea-U.S. relations have been severely shaken. It will be hard to restore the relationship so that it is once again a dependable alliance.
South Korea-Japan relations keep moving backward because leaders of both countries use the relationship as a hostage to politics. Whether or not the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized, the crust in this region is already on the move and it will not stop shifting until a new order has been created.
We cannot know where South Korea’s plate will go. It is a misfortune that the Korean Peninsula faces a turning point in its history at a time when South Korea has a president whose understanding is based on an obsession with self-reliance that prevents him from seeing the global picture.
Our team of diplomats must work harder. They should not be obsessed with initiatives in the six-party talks and they should not promote ideologies, such as self-reliance or anti-Americanism.
They also must be able look beyond the North Korean nuclear crisis to take a broader view of the future. In so doing, they must adopt a diplomacy that has its roots in reality. We cannot predict when tectonic plates will move, but we know that they will. The only inevitability is that change will take place. For too long, we have viewed change as an option. That is a fantasy. Change and history are the same, and nothing can stop that. All we can do is adapt to the inevitable. North Korea and the United States have shown themselves to be masters of change. We in South Korea must do the same.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie