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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

M.P. Barry: Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia with Emphasis on the Korean Peninsula

Backgrounder for European Leadership Conference and Fact Finding Tour to Japan
August 1-5, 2010

Tensions in Northeast Asia increased this spring with North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March. This was the most significant attack by the North against the South since at least the 1980s, and even since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In early July, the UN Security Council issued a presidential statement condemning the attack, without quite acknowledging the North’s culpability in order to gain China’s and Russia’s support. While it is not clear whether this attack was ordered by Kim Jong Il or by DPRK military leaders anxious to demonstrate the nation’s “strength,” the attack should be viewed in the context of the process of leadership succession in the North, which will have a major impact in the region over the next few years.

Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in summer 2008, and it appears he has groomed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to be his successor, aided by his brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, as a modern-day regent. What form such a regime may take in the near future is debatable. North Korea’s durability since 1948, despite the devastation of the Korean War and the famine that followed Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, makes it unlikely that current pressures will cause it to collapse. Yet, the U.S., Japan and the ROK find it necessary to closely consult in case severe instability or collapse do occur in the North. China for its own reasons has not been willing to engage in such collaboration on the North’s future.

China, with more global economic leverage than ever before, is now less seen as a reliable partner in the region. It essentially opposes joint U.S.-ROK naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which although aimed at warning the North, are interpreted by the Chinese as potentially threatening to it as well. Meanwhile, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a huge increase in Chinese investment in the DPRK, including obtaining mining rights, leasing two North Korean ports on the East Sea, and providing a steady influx of cheap consumer goods. From past history, both distant and recent, North Korea harbors deep suspicion about Chinese intentions in the North, yet the DPRK has little choice but to demand sustenance from China since the present administration in the South has curtailed most economic and humanitarian aid. Arguably, China’s ability to influence long-term events, both economically and possibly politically, in North Korea has never been greater since at least the Korean War. Some observers, including many Koreans, worry that China could economically transform North Korea into its fourth northeastern province, in effect leaving the North utterly dependent economically on China while having only nominal independence. China conceivably could even block a Korean reintegration and reunification if it did not occur on terms satisfactory to Chinese interests.

Meanwhile, Japan’s role in the region seems hampered by the impact of two “lost decades,” of economic stagnation and politically muddling through, so that Japan is less able to play a positive role in balancing against China’s hegemonic aspirations and promoting a nurturing environment to foster inter-Korean tension-reduction and cooperation. The United States does not come across to many observers as committed to Northeast Asia as in decades past, despite a troop presence in Japan and South Korea. American policy appears tactical and temporary, not strategic, as its attention remains focused on Southwest Asia, amidst perceptions of a decline in overall U.S. economic and military strength due to the financial crisis that began in 2008.

Recommended reading:

Bradley O. Babson, “Facing Reality: Will North Korea Adopt a More Rational Economic Policy?” 38 North, U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, July 9, 2010

John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, "The Six-Party Talks: Outlining a true restart," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, 17 March, 2010

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