Tremors in the East

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

The nuclear test has unleashed a sense of unease across East Asia as the region tries to come to terms with an evolving reality.


FOR a number of years, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) unsuccessfully sought "security guarantees" from its "arch adversary", the United States. And for a variety of reasons, including their tangled equation that has remained almost stagnant in recent years despite political contacts between the two, Pyongyang is taking the skewed "law" of the existing global "non-proliferation order" into its own hands. Not surprisingly, this action has unleashed a profound sense of unease across East Asia as it struggles to come to terms with an evolving reality.

The DPRK's assertive "nuclearisation" of its arsenal is of strategic and economic relevance to China, its major political interlocutor and humanitarian benefactor, in the short run as also in the long term. However, the impact on the DPRK's ethnic neighbour, South Korea, and on Japan, a yesteryear imperial power, is of nearly unpredictable proportions. The reasons that militate against hasty conclusions in this regard are different in the cases of South Korea and Japan, which is Washington's foremost ally in East Asia.

For South Korea, the determining factor, which is also a complicating ingredient, is the ethnic and "unique geopolitical" links between the two Koreas. On a different but proximate front, the DPRK, which does not tire of emphasising a "military-first ideology", sees in Japan a reflection of its bygone imperialism that might yet be "revived".

In the process, Pyongyang tends to ignore, consciously or otherwise, Japan's 21st century image as an aspirant for the status of a "post-modern state" or the model of a developed macro-level economy plus a qualitatively high living index.

In all, therefore, the DPRK has sounded a wake-up call for not only Tokyo but also Seoul.

Apart from China as a potential superpower on the global stage, the other powers in the extended East Asian region that do not feel "threatened" by the DPRK's action are Australia and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). For Russia, an Asia-Pacific neighbour with Soviet-era links to the DPRK, there is no real threat but a serious concern about the new challenge to the prevalent "nuclear order" in world politics. Australia is an increasingly autonomous ally of the U.S., but remains steadfast in its commitment to its long-established military alliance with the latter. As a result, Australia, which nestles comfortably under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, does not have to run for cover in the context of the DPRK's military-related moves. Nonetheless, Canberra wants to rein in North Korea. Australia is a proactive player that "safeguards" the global "non-proliferation order" and a close lieutenant of the U.S. under the controversial banner of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

The ASEAN, on the other hand, is dismayed over the DPRK's latest actions. Significantly, the association had gone against the deeper wishes of the U.S. and invited the DPRK to become an interlocutor at the high table of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The calculation was that the move would serve as an insurance against any military-related "adventurism" by North Korea.

This expectation was based on the reasoning about the ARF's status as an elite forum, including the U.S. as also China and Russia, besides India and Japan, for security-related dialogue. Regardless of whether such an overture had at all influenced the DPRK's thinking on strategic affairs, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong expressed deep concern over Pyongyang's latest action.

When the DPRK finally signalled its entry into the nuclear club on October 9, South Korea was actually locked in a dispute with the U.S. over a military issue traceable to the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had urged the U.S. to let Seoul exercise "wartime control" over its own military personnel on home turf.

"Peacetime control" over these troops was transferred to South Korea several years ago, and Roh wanted "wartime control" on two counts: South Korea's reassertion of its sovereignty and Roh's calculation that suchcontrol over his own troops would ensure his credibility in the eyes of Kim Jong-il, the DPRK's supreme leader. Roh reckoned that any fresh outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula was not necessary to gain such control over South Korean troops. More importantly, he argued that he would be able to talk to the DPRK with a degree of "credibility" about mutually beneficial confidence-building measures in the military domain only if he had control over his own soldiers.

The issue remained contentious when Kim struck his nuclear gong, although U.S. President George W. Bush did not want to alienate South Korea, host to nearly 30,000 American troops even after Washington's recent scale-down of its military presence in East Asia. Now, whatever might be South Korea's "ethnic softness" towards the DPRK, Roh is coming under pressure, especially from the old conservatives at home, to take a serious view of its nuclear "adventure" and strengthen ties with the U.S.

Within hours of the October 9 test, Roh signalled, for the first time, a political willingness to reconsider Seoul's "sunshine policy" that centred on engaging the DPRK with the aim of building a better relationship and eventual reunification.

However, any such policy reversal is easier said than done in South Korea, where a growing measure of anti-U.S. nationalism is manifest among the younger generations. South Korea's economic success, in shining contrast to the downturn in the DPRK, may be arguably attributed to the protective efficacy of the nuclear umbrella and other security arrangements that the U.S. has extended to Seoul for a number of years. Yet, it is the public confidence generated by this economic success that spurs the younger generations of South Koreans to clamour for "nationalist" ways to engage the DPRK on their own terms without any "dictation" by or from the U.S.

It is through this prism that South Korea looks at the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council imposed on the DPRK on October 14. As of now South Korea has made no effort to stop the flow of humanitarian supplies to North Korea. While such relief was not embargoed under the Security Council's Resolution 1718, Seoul came under pressure to halt or slow down its tourism and industrial estate projects in the DPRK. Seoul's initial response was to wait and watch the developments on the DPRK's nuclear front.

More important, in a strategic sense, was the emergence of divisions across South Korea's political spectrum on the PSI issue. Under the U.S. scheme of sanctions, South Korea was expected to join the PSI bandwagon. But Seoul has not done so yet; ruling party leaders argued against any move that might lead to an armed clash with the DPRK.

Resolution 1718 provides for inspections of cargo to and from the DPRK under the measures stipulated to prevent it from proliferating further. Soon after the passage of the resolution, the U.S. representative at the U.N., John Bolton, emphasised that its provisions on cargo inspections would help "build" upon the foundations of the PSI.

China and a few others have consistently cited international law to oppose the doctrines and procedures of the PSI. As a coalition of the willing, the PSI has authorised itself to intercept, interdict, and inspect cargo that might be carried by any mode of transport. The stated objective is to "prevent" the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Bolton's view is that Resolution 1718 has conferred the legitimacy of international law on the PSI.

Immediately after the passage of the resolution, the Chinese Permanent Representative at the U.N., Wang Guangya, expressed himself against the PSI-like inspections. He later indicated that China would be willing to carry out inspections in a manner that would not trigger any conflict with the DPRK. According to authoritative Chinese sources, another factor in Beijing's non-proliferation calculus is to ensure the retention of "influence" to be able to deal with the DPRK issue on a long-term basis.

For Japan, the U.S. insistence on PSI-like inspections poses no problem. Like Canberra and Singapore, Tokyo is an East Asian participant in the PSI itself. A greater concern for Japan, which too hosts American troops and war machines, is the new nuclear "threat" from the DPRK besides the old "missile threat" from the same source. Tokyo, therefore, is happy with the latest reassurance by the U.S. about enhancing its military cooperation with its allies, including the non-sovereign Taiwan in relation to China, particularly in areas such as missile defence.

In addition, Japan imposed some sanctions of its own on the DPRK even before Resolution 1718 was adopted. These related to a total ban on imports from North Korea and also bans on the entry of the DPRK's citizens and transport vehicles into Japanese land, sea and air space. These independent sanctions, now for six months, are a sequel to the financial squeeze that was applied to the DPRK following its missile tests in July.

As in South Korea, Japan too faces a dilemma on the domestic scene. This relates to the logic of Japan's post-imperial nuclear pacifism. Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and authoritative Japanese sources indicated that Tokyo would continue to practise nuclear pacifism even after the DPRK's first atomic weapon test, the issue is really beginning to acquire political resonance in Japan itself.

Relevant to these new dynamics is the assessment of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies that "essentially defensive steps are likely to detract from rather than enhance regional security" in North Korea's neighbourhood.

An "unthinkable" nuclear weapons programme by pacifist Japan or South Korea could be deemed to be "defensive steps". However, the DPRK is essentially challenging the notion, advocated by "post-proliferation" experts such as Stephen Rosen of Harvard University, that the U.S. is serving as "the guarantor of the current order" in Asia in the nuclear arms domain as well.

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