NK Bluster Distracts From China-Japan Rivalry

13 Apr

Yoshida Signs San Francisco Peace TreatyNorth Korea’s recent bluster bears out what I have thought for years, that North Korea exists as a reminder of unfinished diplomacy in East Asia. North Korea has now hamfistedly expressed publicly what was consensus – Japan is in Pyongyang’s sights too.

“North Korea warned Japan Friday that Tokyo would be the first target in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula if it continues to maintain its hostile posture,” reports South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency this morning in America, by way of a report from the DPRK‘s state-run Korean Central News Agency. “Japan always remains a target of the DPRK’s revolutionary armed forces. Once Japan makes even a slight provocation against the DPRK, the former will be hard hit before any others,” the report adds.

That’s pretty scary, especially since things had been calming down for a few days there — and especially considering the Pentagon can’t even make up its mind about what, exactly, Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities look like right now. And there are red-tipped missiles at flower shows in Pyongyang. But there’s sort of a loophole in today’s news. Notice how the warning reads: “if it” — as in Japan — “continues to maintain its hostile posture.” What the North Korean propaganda machine appears to be referring to is Tuesday’s action out of Japan, when it set up a slew of interceptor missiles in Tokyo as a precaution against North Korea’s declarations of war. And there have been plenty of precautionary measures from around the globe of late after what Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday called “unacceptable” rhetoric from the all too excitable Kim dynasty.

Rod Wye, a 37 year veteran of government service and former head of the Asia Research Group in Britain’s Foreign Office, puts the current impasse between the United States, North Korea, and South Korea into context as a “distraction” (~21 min.) to broader, unsettled issues in the post-WW2 settlement in East Asia.

It would be stupid for China and Japan to again go to war. Stupid, but not impossible. Both claim a small set of islets in the East China Sea — about seven square kilometers of rock — called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan. Recently Japan, which has possession, fiddled with the islets’ unresolved status, thereby angering China. While China wants to negotiate Japan innocently says that there is no dispute and nothing to talk about. Absent any diplomatic partner China is aggressively deploying military assets in local waters. Worse, both Tokyo and Washington (notwithstanding Washington’s simultaneous, quite contradictory claim that the U.S. is neutral), say the “Senkaku” are covered by a US-Japan security treaty. That puts the U.S. on the hook if there were a military clash.

Wye has a refreshingly complex view of institutions and international law, leavened with realistic optimism. Timothy Mo also makes an argument Wye buries in hypnotizing layers of complexity – this is about China and Japan.

The “crisis” on the 38th parallel has little to do with the two Koreas: it’s about oil and gas for China, the prelude to an energy grab that will safeguard the expansion of the Chinese economy for decades to come. Six months ago Taiwanese and Japanese coastguard cutters were drenching each other in spray from water cannon, in footage now forgotten. The present pantomime, with hisses greeting North Korea as the villain, is not a replacement of the fountain show but its encore.

By the way, Japan and Taiwan moved a few chess around in the Senakakus dispute.

In an ordinary week, an agreement about the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands, a disputed area that has triggered a series of standoffs between China and Japan in recent years, would have been big news.

Such an agreement was signed this week, albeit not between China and Japan –rather Japan and Taiwan, which also claims the islands as part of its territory, have reached a deal that will allow Taiwanese fisherman to use the majority of the Japanese-controlled zone around the islands.

Although the deal is framed as an interim agreement, delaying resolution of claims of ownership, it promises to change the dynamics of the East China Sea. It removes the main source of friction between Taiwan and Japan but creates a variety of problems for the Chinese government, which fears both diplomatic isolation on territorial issues and a revival of Taiwan’s diplomatic status. It could also signal an important strategic shift as China’s eastern neighbors borrow an approach from the Philippines and Vietnam.

What we are seeing now with the Japan-Taiwan agreement and North Korea’s threats is the revenge of the two problems the United States decided not to pursue after World War Two, a predicament codified in the flawed 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. The United States can either recommit itself to the defense of allies in Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. Or, it can redeploy and allow either a realist renaissance or encourage regional cohesion. The “pivot” seems to embrace the first option. But, as Wye argues, the United States could allow regional states to learn again how to conduct diplomacy with each other. It could also call for a broader EU-type or ASEAN-type regional organization. But these disputes risk real loss of life and treasure, and all because of incompetence that now has become routine. Only the various military services benefit.

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