The North Koreans may have accomplished in recent days what a half-century of American diplomacy could not: Weld a Japanese-South Korean alliance as the foundation of a U.S.-supported peace and stability coalition for Asia.
President Eisenhower’s visionary if sometimes tone-deaf Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was accused of “pactomania” in the 1950s, when he tried to ring the Soviets with regional defense alliances. But Dulles foresaw the Cold War would be long, requiring a worldwide collaboration of democratic — and not so-democratic — allies.
In Asia, however, Mr. Dulles’ vision exceeded his grasp. He ran up against, among other problems, a Japan that had unilateral disarmament foisted upon it by Washington in the wake of World War II. It took the 1950 North Korean invasion of South Korea, followed by massive Chinese communist intervention, to disabuse Washington of that strategy, rapidly coming to see Japan as keystone to halting Asian communism. Economic strategies worked; both Japan, and later South Korea, roared into new prosperity and formed close trade relations with the U.S. — and each other.
But the sticking point has always been getting Japanese and South Koreans to agree to a multilateral political and military collaboration.
Not even an erstwhile World War II military bureaucrat, Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, and a South Korean military dictator who started his career as a Japanese army officer candidate, Park Chung Hee, could quite pull it off in 1958. A half-century of Japanese colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula had left a bitterness easily exploited, especially by Pyongyang and the South Korean left. Nor could Japan assuage the hard feelings by acting as the handmaiden — technologically, organizationally and financially — of South Korea’s economic miracle.
Serendipitously, a decade of failed “sunshine policy” in which left-of-center governments in Seoul tried to buy off Pyongyang now has been followed by a hard-nosed conservative government under President Lee Myung-bak.
In Japan, an amalgam of guilt and xenophobia has blocked assimilation of an official 1 million Korean ethnics — many of whose forebears came as indentured labor. Although ethnic Koreans have starred in the arts and sports, exclusion and discrimination against “Zainichi” (Japan-born Koreans) festers, a prejudice that until recently only enhanced Pyongyang’s smuggling and currency operations inside Japan.
The recent photograph of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton standing with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts conferring in Washington is symbolic of the new tone. Japanese military observers were present at recent U.S.-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea, and Seoul’s observers then tagged along with the largest exercises ever between Japanese and American naval forces. For the moment, Japanese, South Korean and American diplomats are presenting a united front against Beijing’s suggestion of more dawdling talks with the North after the latest exchange of unpleasantries. It’s still a long way from a full-fledged strategy, but increasingly China’s refusal to pressure North Korea to halt its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — and reports of Beijing-Pyongyang weapons collusion — has become a central issue for all three allies.
Beijing, to judge from the coverage in the government-controlled media, has taken note, but the shift is still a long way from the kind of alliance which stood up to the Soviet Union in Europe. And Beijing has its own trumps to play.
Although Tokyo and Seoul are major U.S. trading partners, China’s subsidized export sector has been a strategic godsend in the face of rising domestic costs. And with China’s growing raw materials imports pacing commodities markets, economic pressures from China will have their effect. The Chinese, of course, can overdo it: When they blocked essential “rare earth” mineral shipments to Tokyo recently after the altercation with the Japanese in the Senkaku Islands, alternate sources — even at higher prices — began popping up to challenge their monopoly.
Nor is Dulles’ old dream of tying the Southeast Asian nations to such an alliance likely soon, despite recent Washington interventions on their side against outrageous Chinese claims in the South China Sea. No one seemed to notice the first reaction from the Philippines, once the U.S.’ main Asian partner, was to warn Washington to back off — a reflection of Manila’s own off-and-on effort to make a deal with Beijing.
Still, a Japan-Korea alliance with American support would be a powerful one. A just-concluded free-trade agreement between Seoul and Washington still faces congressional scrutiny from beef producers, although Detroit this time in on board. Tokyo has begun to think about its own trade deal with the U.S. or on an even broader regional scale, matching Beijing’s aggressive regional trade and investment tactics.
With no real solution to the problem of North Korea in sight, and growing suspicions of Chinese aims, these moves will be as important to Washington as they are to the new, tentative Northeast Asian allies.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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