[Viewpoint] A crisis of diplomacy for Seoul

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[Viewpoint] A crisis of diplomacy for Seoul

Last week the Japan Business Federation invited me to Japan, and I met with many people during my visit. North Korea’s missile launch was the hottest topic. Will Japan attempt to shoot down the North Korean rocket?

I asked defense expert Hiroshi Imazu, a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party who has served as defense vice minister, about the intercept. In principle, he said, the self-defense forces would shoot down the missile if there is any possibility of it causing damage in Japan. So, technically, a missile interception is possible. He explained that Japan would be aware of a missile launch starting in the fueling stages, that satellites can detect the moment of launch, and that, therefore, the missile can be shot down relatively early. On the possibility of a pre-emptive strike, which some have advocated, Imazu said it was doable. However, the United States will be in charge of a pre-emptive strike if it happens, he added. If Japanese bombers did strike the North, the planes would have trouble returning due to shortage of fuel if they engage in a battle against North Korean fighters. Imazu’s explanation was very detailed.

I asked a high-ranking foreign ministry insider about an intercept. He said it is more complicated than simply shooting down the missile as it is launched. “But if the missile is flying in a direction threatening to Japan, we could respond within the scope of self-defense. A missile defense system has been established to be used in case of such an event.” While his expressions were euphemistic, his will was firm. What will happen if the North Korean missile is intercepted by Japan?

Keio University professor and Northeast Asia expert Ryosei Kokubun estimates that more Japanese support an interception than oppose it.

However, the final decision on whether or not to shoot down the missile will be made by Washington. After all, the direction Northeast Asia takes will be determined by the U.S.?China relationship. In other words, Beijing’s opinion will be critical. The United States and China have become very close, and Washington is trusting Beijing to help resolve issues in North Korea.

The Obama administration is expected to promote a closer relationship with China. In a way, China will have a greater voice. Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concerns over the “safety” of United States Treasury bonds that China holds and called on the U.S. government to guarantee them. His words illustrate the changed relationship. It is only natural for China to have a say when it holds $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds. China is no longer quietly accumulating power. Now, it takes whatever action is in its best interest.

Japan is getting closer to China as well. About the increasing intimacy between Beijing and Washington, Professor Kokubun said, “It feels like Japan is becoming estranged from the United States.” This sense of estrangement encourages Tokyo to stay close to Beijing. The two countries had a less-than-friendly relationship until 2005 because of the prime minister’s Yasukuni Shrine visits and Japan’s attempts to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The tension started to ease when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China in 2006. Of course, Washington’s mediation efforts helped the friendly mood.

Recently Japan has been seeking to organize tripartite cooperation with the U.S. and China. The discussion progresses as the relationships among the three countries improve. Korea is officially against this apparatus.

Lately, North Korea’s relationship with China is rapidly improving. This year, the two countries celebrate the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations.

On Wednesday, North Korean Prime Minister Kim Young-il visited China and attended the opening ceremony for their “Year of Friendship” alongside Chinese Premier Wen. Beijing has drastically beefed up assistance to North Korea. Some analysts predict Kim Jong-il will personally make a visit to China.

In the end, even if Pyongyang does launch a missile, it is highly likely that Washington and Tokyo will not shoot it down because Beijing is against the idea. The United States will begin a new dialogue with China. Japan will also attempt to exercise influence through the United States and China.

The question is how Korea will react. Amid the international politicking that will determine the destiny of the Korean Peninsula, a place for the Republic of Korea is not readily visible.

We are going through a security crisis now. We might not feel it as much as the economic crisis, but the security crisis is just as serious.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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