Tremors in North-East Asia

Events over the last fortnight in the North-east Asian peninsula and its environs have created tremors in a wider world that would include the United States and Russia. First came the launching by North Korea of what is described as a long-range rocket, potentially able to carry a nuclear missile. Success has come after some initial failures in recent years, regularly denounced by the United States as destabilizing within the Asian sphere, and that success  seems to have been something of a surprise to the US. In turn, the US has denounced it as “a highly provocative act that threatens regional security, directly violates United Nations security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, contravenes North Korea’s international obligations, and undermines the global nonproliferation regime.”

The second event has been the defeat of the South Korean government in parliamentary elections and the entry into office of Ms Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party, Ms Park being the daughter of the long-ruling military leader Park Chung-hee. She promptly asserted that the North Korean action was a “symbolic demonstration of how serious a challenge we face in national security.” But in fact, her election seemed to reflect popular fears, not about the North’s efforts, but that the incumbents were failing to come to terms with lagging economic growth in the country over recent years.

The third event was the victory of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the longest serving party of post-World War II government, after a hiatus of some years, in a context in which tensions have been rising between China and Japan as they contest the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands. This controversy is obviously of much concern not only to the United States as it tries to rework its relations with a China now itself under new leadership, but also to a Russia concerned to focus on revamping its economy while not wanting any nationalist tremors in the area of the country that borders on Asia.

The North Korean missile launch comes at a time when other actors are not completely able to read the direction that country, under its new leader Kim Jong Un, grandson of the notorious Kim Il Sung, is taking. It would appear that Mr Kim is attempting a modernization of the country’s economy, the one most lagging in that part of Asia, at a time when countries like North Vietnam and Cambodia have virtually put the Cold War era behind them. Their recent welcome of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and their attempts at modelling their economies on the state-capitalist pattern now being attempted by China, indicate a desire to come to terms with the new geopolitics of the area that is concerned with the creation of a balance that can preserve the autonomy and stability of the relatively small countries.

From that perspective too, although there are variations of concern between the two main parties, the recent South Korean elections took place in a context in which a preoccupation, likely to be reinforced by Ms Park’s victory, has been to seek to influence an opening of the North Korean leadership to private investment possibilities, in much the same way that Japan has influenced China to accept this strategy of economic growth. China is at present Japan’s largest overseas market, a factor which the Chinese will certainly have to take into acount as they rumble with Japan over the Senkaku islands, and even as they seek to influence Japan’s behaviour in that regard by disrupting the Japanese economic presence in China itself.

Perhaps the most important effect of both the Chinese nationalistic behaviour and the North Korean persistence with developing its rocket-launching capabilities, will be a new diplomacy of Asian geopolitics. This is likely to subordinate traditional ideological orientations on the part of the smaller Asian communist states to a diplomacy that gives them a new geopolitical cover, through alliances with pro-Western countries like Japan, Australia and more latterly Indonesia, all connected to United States Asian diplomacy.

The United States’ concern with North Korea goes, of course, beyond its preoccupations with the North-east Asian arena, towards a fear that North Korea is supplying Iran with nuclear capability know-how. But there is a certain scepticism even among some of the Americans’ allies as to the extent to which North Korea will really be a determining influence in Iran’s present orientation. The United States itself, after the recent North Korean failure to successfully undertake its rocket launchings, had ridiculed that country’s capabilities in that regard, no doubt leading, at present, to doubts on the part of its allies about its projections of North Korean geopolitical ambitions.

It is likely that the present success of the North Koreans will increase the influence of China as a necessary participant in the attempts of the NATO countries to control Mr Kim’s present efforts. Kim himself would appear to be seeking to reorient his country’s economic direction, though there are indications that he is in doubt as to how this might be achieved. The extent to which the Chinese government makes a real effort to influence his economic policies, and in so doing to induce Kim to accept entreaties by the new South Korean government that it should open up to external investment, will probably be as influential as any diplomacy or threats made by the US at this time.

And this leads to the question as to whether, in the face of the present China-Japan territorial dispute, there can be a sufficient concert of policy between China, Japan and the United States, that can assist South Korea in influencing its neighbour’s economic policies, as well as finding a formula for more concrete and mutually reinforcing policies on nuclear capability developments. China, following the North Korean launch, has indirectly set parameters applicable to North Korea in respect of its nuclear capability plans, by publicly asserting “regret” over the recent launch, while simultaneously insisting that the country “is entitled to the peaceful use of outer space.” But it would be a major leap, we suspect, for the Chinese leadership to join the Western countries in pursuing economic sanctions or embargoes on North Korea.

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