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Hither and Yon

Shifting alignments in NE Asia may have long-term impact

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Alliances and policies have a way of shifting quickly, at opportune or even inopportune moments. What’s China’s President Xi Jinping doing in Seoul this week, and why are the Japanese talking to the North Koreans?
For that matter, how come Japan is revising its stern no-war policy so Japanese forces can aid foreign friends in “collective self-defense?” No, Japan is not quite ready to revise Article Nine of its Constitution, drafted by Americans during the post-World War “occupation,” under which “the Japanese people renounce war forever,” military forces “will never be maintained” and “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye welcomed China’s President Xi Jinping on his 2-day visit beginning July 3.
South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye welcomed China’s President Xi Jinping on his 2-day visit beginning July 3.
Having long since established an army, navy and air force as strictly “self-defense forces,” Japan now is rationalizing a great leap forward in which Japanese ships and planes could join the American ally in fighting for Japanese interests. One obvious scenario: a Northeast Asia war exploding out in armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula or a Chinese attack on the Senkakus, that uninhabited island cluster in the East China Sea that Japan holds against the Chinese, which calls them Diaoyu.
Could it be entirely coincidental that Japan’s hawkish, rightist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, came out with this “proactive” policy shift just as South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye was preening to greet President Xi for two days of summitry? And how was it that Japanese and North Korean diplomats were meeting in Beijing to talk about the fates of Japanese citizens kidnapped to North Korea in addition to the dozen or so whom North Korea’s late Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il acknowledged in 2002 had been spirited to the North?
Kim Jong-Il made that admission in a summit in Pyongyang with Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister.
And guess who was at Koizumi’s side, urging him to demand an apology and admit the kidnappings? Yes, Shinzo Abe, the son of the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, serving as Koizumi’s aide.
As if these coincidences were not enough to inspire conjecture about slowly shifting alliances, there’s also the coincidence of North Korea’s launch of short- to medium-range missiles, presumably Scuds of old Soviet design. These babies, though, are supposedly different. They come with what the North Koreans claim is a brand new system for hitting targets with incredible accuracy.
Exactly what the missiles hit when test-fired is not known, at least outside the intelligence-gathering community, but they did carry a message: Pyongyang is pushing ahead with its missile-and-nuclear program at a time when the president of its greatest friend, its source of food and fuel, its Korean War ally and savior, has chosen to visit South Korea ahead of North Korea.
Could there be any better way for North Korea’s young untested leader Kim Jong-Un, never blessed with an invitation to go to China in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-Il, to show off his own style of leadership?
Who’s really calling the shots in North Korea, though, is never certain. One name mentioned among those who was present when Kim Jong-Un “ordered” a test-firing of the latest-model missiles is Vice Marshall Hwang Pyong-So, director of the political bureau of the armed forces, in charge of propaganda for the entire military establishment. A confidante of Kim Jong-Un long before the death of Kim’s father in December 2011, Hwang for the moment seems closest to the center of power.
Interestingly, although Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency hinted at “preemptive” strikes against its enemies, the U.S. was not even an imaginary target since these missiles were not long-range models of the sort that put a satellite into orbit last year. South Korea and Japan were obviously in their range, but how about China?
North Korea is not about to go to war with its powerful protector, but certainly China is viewed with open hostility by many at the highest levels in Pyongyang.
Actually, the confluence of such signals in a very brief period may work in South Korea’s favor. As China and South Korea expand trade and investment, North Korea poses an increasingly negligible threat despite the prospect of a fourth nuclear test. Just as North Korea is not going to menace China militarily, so it’s not going to put its enormous investment in horrific weaponry to real use. South Koreans are right to be bored by the rhetoric.
If Japan’s incipient relationship with North Korea also works for peace in the region, what about the Chinese challenge on the Senkakus and the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea alliances?
Will Japanese ships and planes support the Americans on operations from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and beyond? And how would South and North Korea respond if conflict broke out?
On the chessboard of Northeast Asian rivalries, the players are making moves that may change the nature of the game.
Columnist Donald Kirk, author of several books and several thousand articles from Asia, has been watching the match for decades.
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