Changes in Northeast Asia
The diplomatic doughnut in Northeast Asia has existed for some time now. South Korea is in a hole when it comes to its relations with North Korea and Japan.
Japan is having a summit meeting with China and is discussing abductee issues with North Korea, but the large hole still remains. China’s relationship with North Korea is not as solid as before. While Korea, China and Japan pursue global diplomacy, the scope is still very narrow. All three countries are limited by the high walls of distrust and confrontation over territorial and historical discord. While regional economic dependency is increasing, politics and security are going the other way.
The diplomatic doughnut represents the Northeast Asian paradox. A relative decline of the United States and Japan, the sudden rise of China and the relative emergence of Korea are entangled. It is ironic that the discord is aggravated as second-generation leaders simultaneously come into power in each country. Flexibility can be undermined as each country is limited by the legacy of the past generation or the evaluation of their predecessors.
How will the topography of Northeast Asia alter next year? A series of changes that will impact the domestic politics of each country is happening. Whether a country is based on democracy or not, foreign policy is always an extension of domestic politics. Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a political challenge. Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang has been expelled from the Communist Party as a follow-up to the ousting of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. Punishing Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang may seem like a move to eradicate corruption on the surface, but it is more a product of a power struggle.
By purging his opponents, Xi’s authority has become more powerful than ever. Emperor Xi has been born. Now, China’s attitude towards Japan may become more flexible. The purpose of Xi’s Japan-bashing was to bring the party, the military and the public together. You are mistaken if you think that China’s Japan policy was solely based on Xi’s stern face at the summit meeting last month.
The three-year mourning period for Kim Jong-il has ended, and North Korean Workers Party First Secretary Kim Jong-un is now on his own. Until now, North Korea has been under the joint regime of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. At first, the dying injunctions of Kim Jong-il ruled the North. Now, Kim Jong-un is solidifying his one-man leadership. Uncle Jang Song-thaek has been executed, and power elites have been reshuffled. The minister of the People’s Armed Forces has changed five times, and the Chief of General Staff has been replaced four times. Generals have frequently been given a star, or had one taken away. Official policy was a parallel pursuit of economic and nuclear development. Nineteen special economic development zones have been designated. Pyongyang is trying to diversify its diplomacy. Next year, Kim’s characteristics will be more apparent in both domestic and foreign policies. Kim may make a debut on the international stage and a visit to Russia is rumored. Pyongyang may seek the recovery of North-China relations by improving the inter-Korean relationship.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been given renewed confidence as the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Komeito Party won a landslide victory in the Diet election. Abe’s government finally shook off the leadership deficit that has continued since the Junichiro Koizumi cabinet (2001-2006). The coalition has a majority in both houses and will have no obstacle in passing bills. Until Abe came into power in 2012, a series of prime ministers lasted a year on average, as the ruling party didn’t have a majority in both houses of the Diet. After four more years in office, Abe will serve six years. While this is shorter than Xi’s 10 years, it is a year longer than the Korean presidency. The LDP is not an alliance of factions, and the conservative party executive board has absolute influence. While Abe will focus on economic recovery for now, he will attempt to re-establish the security system, a long-cherished postwar ambition. Historical revisionism will remain the same. On the surface, Japan will aggressively pursue normalization with China.
Korea has no election scheduled next year, and President Park’s term will pass the halfway point. The centrifugal and centripetal forces will alter Northeast Asian dynamics. Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation from Japan and the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Korea-Japan relations. We may experience turbulence. Or we can start filling in the blanks in Northeast Asian diplomacy. Northeast Asian peace planning is a part of it. Korea is the only country free from historical discord or a political system in Northeast Asia. It is about time we turn the plan into reality. Historical fundamentalism and a resolution of North Korean nuclear threat should be reconsidered. Improving relations with Japan and North Korea will expand Korea’s diplomatic space and create economic opportunities. Foreign policy strategy could be different from public opinion. Strategic decision for national interests will be judged by the next generation. Time is not on Korea’s side.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 18, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Young-hwan