Page 1 of 2 Why 2012 will shake up Asia and the world
By John Feffer
The United States has long styled itself a Pacific power. It established the
model of counter-insurgency in the Philippines in 1899 and defeated the
Japanese in World War II. It faced down the Chinese and the North Koreans to
keep the Korean Peninsula divided in 1950, and it armed the Taiwanese to the
Today, America maintains the most powerful military in the Pacific region,
supported by a constellation of military bases, bilateral alliances and about
100,000 service personnel.
It has, however, reached the high-water mark of its Pacific presence and
influence. The geopolitical map is about to be redrawn. Northeast Asia, the
area of the world with the greatest
concentration of economic and military power, is on the verge of a regional
transformation. And the US, still preoccupied with the Middle East and hobbled
by a stalled and stagnating economy, will be the odd man out.
Elections will be part of the change. Next year, South Koreans, Russians and
Taiwanese will all go to the polls. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party will
also ratify its choice of a new leader to take over from President Hu Jintao.
He will be the man expected to preside over the country's rise from the number
two spot to the pinnacle of the global economy.
But here's the real surprise in store for Washington. The catalyst of change
may turn out to be the country in the region that has so far changed the least:
North Korea. In 2012, the North Korean government has trumpeted to its people a
promise to create kangsong taeguk, or an economically prosperous and
militarily strong country.
Pyongyang now has to deliver somehow on that promise - at a time of food
shortages, overall economic stagnation and political uncertainty. This dream of
2012 is propelling the regime in Pyongyang to shift into diplomatic high gear,
and that, in turn, is already creating enormous opportunities for key Pacific
Washington, which has focused for years on North Korea's small but developing
nuclear arsenal, has barely been paying attention to the larger developments in
Asia. Nor will Asia's looming transformation be a hot topic in our own
presidential election next year. We'll be arguing about jobs, health care and
whether the president is a socialist or his Republican challenger a nutcase.
Aside from some ritual China-bashing, Asia will merit little mention.
President Barack Obama, anxious about giving ammunition to his opponent, will
be loath to fiddle with Asia policy, which is already on autopilot. So while
others scramble to remake East Asia, the United States will be suffering from
its own peculiar form of continental drift.
Pyongyang turns on the charm
On April 15, 1912, in an obscure spot in the Japanese empire, a baby was born
to a Christian family proud of its Korean heritage. The 100th anniversary of
the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder and dynastic leader, is coming
up next year. Ordinarily, such an event would be of little importance to anyone
other than 24 million North Koreans and a scattering of Koreans elsewhere. But
this centennial also marks the date by which the North Korean regime has
promised to finally turn things around.
Despite its pretensions to self-reliance, Pyongyang has amply proven that it
can only get by with a lot of help from its friends. Until recently, however,
North Korea was not exactly playing well with others.
It responded in a particularly hardline fashion, for instance, to the more
hawkish policies adopted by new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, when he
took office in February 2008. The shooting of a South Korean tourist at the
Mount Kumgang resort that July, the sinking of the South Korean naval ship the Cheonan
in March 2010 (Pyongyang still claims it was not the culprit), and the shelling
of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island later that year all accelerated a tailspin
in North-South relations.
During this period, the North tested a second nuclear device, prompting even
its closest ally, China, to react in disgust and support a United Nations
declaration of condemnation. Pyongyang also managed to further alienate
Washington by revealing in 2010 that it was indeed pursuing a program to
produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, something it had long denied.
These actions had painful economic consequences. South Korea canceled almost
all forms of cooperation. The North's second nuclear test scotched any
incipient economic rapprochement with the United States. (The George W Bush
administration had removed North Korea from its terrorism list, and there had
been hints that other longstanding sanctions might sooner or later be dropped
as part of a warming in relations.)
Only the North's relationship with China was unaffected, largely because
Beijing is gobbling up significant quantities of valuable minerals and securing
access to ports in exchange for just enough food and energy to keep the country
on life support and the regime afloat. Between 2006 and 2009, an already anemic
North Korean economy contracted, and chronic food shortages again became acute.
To these economic travails must be added political ones. The country's
leadership is long past retirement, with 70-year-old leader Kim Jong-il younger
than most of the rest of the ruling elite. He has designated his youngest son,
Kim Jong-eun, as his successor, but the only thing that this mystery boy seems
to have going for him is his resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Still, North Korea seems no closer to full-scale collapse today than during
previous crises - like the devastating famine of the mid-1990s. A thoroughly
repressive state and zero civil society seem to insure that no color revolution
or "Pyongyang Spring" is in the offing. Waiting for the North Korean regime to
go gently into the night is like waiting for Godot.
But that doesn't mean change isn't in the air. To jumpstart its bedraggled
economy and provide a political boost for the next leader in the year of kangsong
taeguk, North Korea is suddenly in a let's-make-a-deal mode.
Kim Jong-il's recent visit to Siberia to meet Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev, for instance, raised a few knowledgeable eyebrows. Conferring at a
Russian military base near Lake Baikal, for the first time in a long while the
North Korean leader even raised the possibility of a moratorium on nuclear
weapons production and testing.
More substantially, he concluded a preliminary agreement on a natural gas
pipeline that could in itself begin to transform the politics of the region. It
would transfer gas from the energy-rich Russian Far East through North Korea to
economically booming but energy-hungry South Korea. The deal could net
Pyongyang as much as $100 million a year.
The North's new charm offensive wouldn't have a hope in hell of succeeding if a
similar change of heart weren't also underway in the South.
The Bulldozer's miscalculation
On taking office, the conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, known
as the "Bulldozer" when he headed up Hyundai's engineering division, promised
to put Korean relations on a new footing. Ten years of "engagement policy" with
the North had, according to Lee, produced an asymmetrical relationship. The
South, he insisted, was providing all the cash, and the North was doing very
little in exchange. Lee promised a relationship based only on quid pro quos.
What he got instead was tit-for-tat: harsher rhetoric and military action.
Ultimately, although the North made no friends below the 38th parallel that
way, the new era of hostility didn't help the Lee administration either. South
Koreans generally watched in horror as a relatively peaceful relationship
veered dangerously close to military conflict.
Lee's ruling party suffered a loss in April's by-elections, and in August he
replaced his hardline unification minister with a more conciliatory fellow.
Still insisting on an apology for the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong
shelling, the ruling party is nevertheless looking for ways to restore
commercial ties and again provide humanitarian assistance to the North.