[Viewpoint] Asia’s year of leadership change

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[Viewpoint] Asia’s year of leadership change

It is possible that by 2013 leaders in every one of the six parties in Northeast Asia will have changed. What will the impact of so many new heads of state be on the North Korea problem and the geostrategy of the Korean Peninsula?

Perhaps the greatest leadership variable in the overall management of the North Korean problem will be South Korea’s presidential election. When the South Korean president moves rapidly toward or against accommodation of the North, there are reverberations in all the other capitals. Extreme moves to accommodate Pyongyang make Beijing happy and Washington and Tokyo nervous. Moves to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance reassure Japan and make Beijing nervous (and sometimes that is necessary, as it was in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong attacks).

Of course, it is in Korea’s larger strategic interest to have both a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance and beneficial economic ties with China. Pulling off that delicate balancing act depends a good deal on the sophistication and nuance of the Korean president. Thus far, Park Geun-hye has the front-runner’s advantage of being able to fine-tune her policy positions for the general election in December, but the progressive camp is gearing up for a major internal battle - and those tend to push candidates further to the extreme end of their party’s ideology.

China’s leadership change from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has been far more orderly and predictable, but beneath that smooth transition has been an intense competition for influence on the Politburo Standing Committee between more authoritarian “princelings” (privileged children of the revolutionary cadres) and the economic populist group. Xi has ties to both camps and to the People’s Liberation Army, and thus, reformers and hardliners both had hopes for his rule.

Increasingly, however, experts are noting a strong hardline theme to Xi’s public rhetoric, including his famous “three did nots” speech criticizing the West. Xi’s visit to the United States in February was uneventful and therefore successful (as vice president his main goal was to avoid any mistakes that would complicate his automatic promotion), but a more confrontational stance toward the West could complicate U.S.-China coordination with the six-party talks and put Seoul in a difficult position.

The U.S. presidential election is also a key variable in the geopolitics of the peninsula. It is worth recalling, however, that there tends to be more continuity than change in American Asia strategy and that the biggest changes in North Korea policy often happen in the middle of administrations rather than during times of transition. Clinton went from the brink of war in 1994 to negotiating the Agreed Framework, for example, and George W. Bush went from a firm stance on the highly enriched uranium (HEU) question to a questionable agreement in October 2008 that included sanctions-lifting and nothing on HEU. The Obama administration’s recent agreement with Pyongyang is flimsy, but probably is about the best the administration could do to discourage a North Korean test this year without setting the president up to look foolish if and when the North does test.

Whether those talks move further ahead in a second Obama term really depends more on Pyongyang than Washington, and it is hard to see how the North could move to more concrete denuclearization steps necessary to trigger further U.S. concessions. And there may not be a second Obama term. The incumbent always has an advantage in U.S. presidential politics, and the Republican primary has been bruising for the front runner, Mitt Romney.

But polls show that Obama is still very vulnerable in swing states like Florida and Ohio, particularly if gasoline prices keep rising. Romney, as one would expect from a Republican candidate, is not going to wax hopeful and optimistic about negotiations with Pyongyang, and the further the Obama administration uses concessions to coax North Korea back to talks, the more Romney will criticize them. If Romney wins, one clear departure will be in defense spending, where the Republican candidate has made an unequivocal (and necessary) commitment to stop the dangerous downsizing of the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

Japan and Russia are also in transition .?.?. perhaps. President Vladimir Putin was always the real power behind Dmitry Medvedev, and the main change now will be that Putin won’t have his younger colleague out in front to put a nice face on Russia’s policies. Putin is personally proud of Russia’s “special relationship” with Pyongyang and will try to show his strategic influence by being a broker with the North. But Russia’s influence in Asia is weak, particularly since Putin has made his signature foreign policy theme confrontation with the West.

Japan does not have to have an election in the lower house of the Diet until August 2013, but it is also possible that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s support could collapse a year into his term just as it did for his five predecessors. It may be that only strong Japanese prime ministers can do what Junichiro Koizumi did in 2002 when he travelled to Pyongyang, but it is also fairly certain that none of the potential successors to Noda are likely to make any bold moves with Pyongyang given the Japanese public’s deep skepticism about North Korea.

Of course, all of these leaders in Northeast Asia will likely be reacting to what Kim Jong-un does next. There may be some small sliver of possibility that he will undertake reforms and denuclearization, but the much greater possibility is that the pendulum in the North will swing back to a more confrontational and provocative stance in the months and years ahead - as it always has. Then, we will have to see how well the other five leaders - most of whom will have barely met - can work together.

* The author is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the CSIS in Washington.

by Michael Green
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