The past few months have seen a remarkable change in leadership in the key countries of North East Asia. In China the new team of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang took over as President and Prime Minister in March. In South Korea Park Heung-hye assumed office in late February. Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister of Japan for the second time in November 2012. And the “Young Leader” Kim Jong-un inherited his father’s role in December 2011.
Nobody was sure what to make of Kim Jong-un in the early months of his tenure. Since then he has been responsible for some of the more extreme threats expressed by a North Korean leader. The others are also variously described as hardline or “assertive”. Xi Jinping, a princeling, is thought to have close links to the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Shinzo Abe is known to harbour strong views on Japan’s history and President Park is the daughter of conservative strongman Park Chung-hee who came to power in the 16th May coup in 1961.
On the face of it the prospects do not look promising. We not only have four assertive leaders but we also have some dangerous issues. Prime amongst these is the question of North Korea. The international community has tried engagement, firmness, sanctions and “strategic patience”. China, its closest ally, has demonstrated its own frustration by co-sponsoring Resolution 2094 at the United Nations Security Council. Regime survival seems to be Pyongyang’s main objective and the retention of nuclear weapons is seen as an integral element of that survival.
For China the prospect of a unified Korea on its southern border (possibly with an inherited nuclear weapon from a collapsed North Korea and US troops still stationed there) represents its nightmare scenario. A collapsed North Korea would also entail hundreds of thousands of impoverished refugees fleeing north. So China wishes North Korea to survive but as an economically more prosperous country without nuclear weapons. For China Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and its unpredictable behaviour also attract unwanted US attention to the region and provide Japan with the rationale for continuing to improve its already powerful armed forces. China worries too that Japan might even contemplate developing a nuclear weapons capability of its own.
What can China do to bring North Korea to heel? Firstly it can draw a clear distinction between the regime and the people. For the former China can begin to impose the smart sanctions which have been previously agreed. Visitors to the border town of Dandong testify to its bustling trade in the high value items which underpin the regime’s privileged status. And in support of the people China could implement development aid intended to replicate in North Korea the economic change which has transformed China over the past 30 years. Such a policy could hold out the hope of a gradual process of evolutionary change in North Korea.
South Korea would support such moves. In its heart South Korea wants unification but in its head it knows that the collapse of the North Korean regime would spell chaos and an enormous reconstruction bill; far higher than that which West Germany paid to integrate East Germany. South Korea would settle for an economically more successful North Korea with a less unpredictable regime. For the longer term South Korea could also reassure China in private that, if and when unification comes about, it would surrender North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and it would not retain US troops on its territory or, at least, not north of the 38th parallel.
The second dispute which endangers North East Asia at present concerns the supposedly hydrocarbon-rich Senkaku Islands disputed between Japan and China. Recent weeks have seen some dangerous moments, not least when a Chinese warship illuminated a Japanese destroyer with its fire control radar. Any incident near the islands could quickly lead to a chain reaction.
Yet the last thing that Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe need is a conflict. Both of them face considerable economic challenges and both recognise that China and Japan are economically inter-dependent (perhaps too much so for Japan’s liking). Shinzo Abe handled China with skill during his otherwise hapless first term in office. He defused the row over Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (for Japan’s war dead). Abe has also been notably cautious in his public statements during this second term.
There are other signs to suggest that the leaders (other than Kim Jong-un) are willing to step back from the brink. That Presidents Park and Xi Jinping spoke by telephone in March is an encouraging sign. President Park is known to want to keep channels of communication open to Pyongyang and to increase development aid to North Korea. Meanwhile the appointment of Wang Yi, the Japanese speaking former Ambassador to Tokyo, as China’s new Foreign Minister has been interpreted in Japan as a gesture that Xi Jinping wants a collaborative relationship. Given the toxic legacy from the 1930s the likelihood is that much of the diplomacy in the region will have to be conducted discreetly; for example a potential agreement over the Senkakus whereby Japan promises not to occupy the islands in return for China agreeing not to enter its territorial waters.
For all this latent promise the peace of the region hangs on events in Pyongyang. That the outside world understands Pyongyang so little represents a serious risk. Not only can the US and South Korea not predict what Pyongyang might do and why, but crucially it is difficult to plan a riposte which, whilst firm, may not cross some real or imagined red-line in Pyongyang thereby leading to escalation. War would be a disaster for the region but a key mitigant would be to ensure that China does not feel obliged, however reluctantly, to act in defence of its recalcitrant ally.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London and a former British diplomat.
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