Changes in Northeast Asian Geopolitics

Changes in Northeast Asian Geopolitics

by Yukio Satoh
January 15, 2007

Ambassador Satoh discusses the new challenges Japan faces in the light of a rapidly changing power balance in the region. He stresses both Japan’s growing sense of insecurity and its commitment to strengthening of the alliance.

Paradigm Shift?

North Korea’s nuclear test has produced policy cohesion among the five major players of Northeast Asian geopolitics: the United Stated, Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia. Symbolically, China, South Korea, and Russia, which were hitherto reluctant to apply apparent pressure on Pyongyang, have come to join the United Sates and Japan in applying non-military sanctions to North Korea. Yet the interests and stakes held by the countries concerned in North Korea vary so widely and Pyongyang’s policy conduct is so unpredictable that it is too early to be optimistic about the future.

It is indeed encouraging that China has become more than ever proactive on the issue. Chinese pressure on North Korea, however, is bound to be carefully measured, for Beijing wishes to avert the influx of refugees across the border and, more importantly, China itself has serious domestic problems to worry about. Despite the country’s mesmerizing economic growth, income disparities and development gaps are already adding to social disturbances and local instabilities.

Persisting with his “engagement policy” toward North Korea, President Roh Mu- Hyun of South Korea continues economic cooperation in the form of tourism to Mount Kumgang and the Kaisong industrial zone project. Diplomatically, South Korea seems to be trying to find its own position somewhere between China on one side and the U.S.-Japan alliance on the other.

The Bush administration remains reluctant to engage in direct dialogues with North Korea outside the Six-Party Talks. Moreover, it appears to be difficult for the United States to take a bold policy initiative to North Korea, as Washington not only is increasingly troubled by the Iraqi quagmire and faced with the Iranian nuclear problem but also is entering the political years of presidential campaign.

Negotiations to normalize relations between Japan and North Korea have been suspended, largely because Pyongyang refuses to address the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals. The resolution of the issue is, for Tokyo, a precondition for normalization, which would entail Japanese economic cooperation with North Korea.

Given all these factors, it is plausible to assume that a set of diplomatic gridlocks will remain in place, with the increasing danger of North Korea becoming even more defiant and violent. The sanctions could have debilitating impact on the reclusive regime should they be sustained in a concerted manner. How Pyongyang would react to the increased difficulties, however, is unpredictable…