Six predictions on Northeast Asia

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Six predictions on Northeast Asia

The American baseball legend Yogi Bera was famous for his malapropisms, the best of which was his observation that “prediction is difficult .?.?. especially about the future.” So with that caveat, here are six questions and quasi-predictions on the big security and foreign policy developments to watch in Northeast Asia for 2014.

Q. Will blowback take out Kim Jong-un?

A. Kim Jong-un’s brutal torture and execution of Jang Song-thaek and elimination of his uncle’s family and political connections could mean that the North Korean leader is far more dangerous and unpredictable than expected.

Some analysts have pondered that Jang’s public take-down was deliberately intended to deter China and the outside world from underestimating Kim Jong-un. Other theories link the purge to feuds over who would control North Korea’s illicit business empire. Either way, the episode strikes me as a sign of Kim Jong-un’s vulnerability rather than strength. Jang Song-thaek had been purged twice before and his family and allies returned to Pyongyang for what they probably thought was, at worst, a third purge. They did not come back expecting to die.

The next time Kim Jong-un begins such a purge against a member of the inner circle, they will not be so complacent. It was never the North Korean people who might take down the regime, but someone with access on the inside. Kim Jong-un has now markedly increased that threat to himself. The odds of blowback? Still low, but rising and potentially very significant.

Will North Korea engage in new provocations?

This is actually not such a bold prediction given the pattern of escalation by the North over the past decade. If the execution of Jang Song-thaek was designed to deter internal and external enemies, and Jang was Beijing’s best hope to moderate Kim Jong-un, then one has to consider the prospect that Pyongyang’s younger and more hard-line leadership will decide it is time to increase tensions to gain new leverage. Springtime could bring renewed pressure around the Northern Limit Line, where young Kim first brandished his credentials as a “Great General” in the attack on the Cheonan in 2010.

Since the Cheonan attack, Korean and U.S. forces have increased capabilities in the West Sea to deter the North from further provocations, but what worries me is that the North may think it has also enhanced its own deterrence against the U.S.-ROK alliance - both through advances in missile and nuclear programs and based on the example of Syria using chemical weapons with apparent impunity (Syria missed the deadline to turn over its deadly Sarin gas last week).

Meanwhile, the North appears to have set all preparations for a fourth nuclear test, possibly with a uranium-based device. The main deterrent against a fourth test in 2013 was probably Pyongyang’s concern about China’s reaction, which was tougher than ever in response to the North’s third test in February 2013.

Jang’s elimination raises questions about whether Beijing retains the same deterrent leverage over Kim Jong-un. The odds of a provocation? 50/50 that there will be either a NLL or nuclear/missile provocation (and that is just based on the statistical average of the last six years).

Will wartime op/con transfer be delayed?

No, probably not. President Park’s national security advisor reportedly asked the U.S. side to consider a delay, but the Blue House appears unwilling to push hard and the Obama administration thinks it is too late to reverse course.

Will a U.S.-Korea 1-2-3 peaceful nuclear agreement be completed?

Yes. But there will be a lot of anxiety, drama, and nationalism towards the end.

Will ROK-Japan relations recover?

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26 makes it hard to envision a ROK-Japan summit before the APEC and East Asia Summit meetings in the autumn, though the atmosphere could improve enough for a short meeting or handshake between President Park Geun-hye and Abe by then. A China-Korea-Japan trilateral summit also seems unlikely.

But even if the summitry stalemate continues through 2014, it will still be possible to reboot defense and foreign policy talks. This will be a major focus for the Obama administration, which needs Seoul and Tokyo working trilaterally with Washington on the North Korea issue and to gain common understanding of the new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines.

Ironically, even as Mr. Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, U.S. Defense officials began worrying that Tokyo would slow down defense reforms (such as recognizing the right of collective self defense) needed to make the new bilateral U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines work. The odds of a Korea-Japan Summit? Low. The odds of restoring defense and foreign policy coordination? Fairly good.

Will China continue aggressively pushing maritime claims?

China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea was not, in my view, a reaction against domestic nationalism or moves by Japan. Instead, it was part of a toolkit developed under the Central Military Commission’s Near Sea Doctrine, which aims to expand Chinese influence, denial and eventually control over the waters within the First - and in time the Second - Island Chains.

There will likely be additional ADIZ at some point in the South China Sea and the West Sea. But Beijing is taking these steps incrementally while anesthetizing the neighborhood with trade and aid agreements to avoid sparking counterbalancing by surrounding states.

So the ADIZ announcement and the more recent incident at sea involving PLA warships and the USS Cowpensare clearly part of a new normal in the East and South China Seas, but that does not mean Beijing will rush to the next step in its strategy. The odds of new ADIZ? 50/50 in 2014.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

by Michael Green

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