New Changes in Northeast Asia and the Coming of the Age of the East-Sea Rim

|Korean Peninsula

This summer, which inflamed the Japanese archipelago, with Saburo Shiroyama’s economy-related novel “The Summer of the Bureaucrats” being reborn in the form of a television drama, and Northeast Asia’s summer—centered on the Korean Peninsula—was also quite heated. In the ROK the previous president Roh Moo-hyun and former president Kim Dae-jung—who were the “sunshine policy evangelists”—passed away in the lingering heat of the dazzling sunlight which had glowed brilliantly. At the funeral ceremonies of the two former presidents, amid a wave of several million people paying their respects, public and state funerals were held. The deaths of the two presidents brought various evaluations regarding the accomplishments of the principal policy which was forwarded during their terms of office, which covered the last decade, and provided the spur to resolve the chilled North–South relations. That is, the chairperson of the Hyundai Group, which is the leading company on projects with the DPRK, visited the DPRK and agreed on the pending projects (the resumption of tourism and the normalization of entry and exit and staying in Mount Kumgang and Kaesong and the execution of the project for reunions of separated families). Furthermore, the DPRK dispatched high-ranking envoys to pay their respects to the former president Kim Dae-jung, they paid a courtesy call on President Lee Myung-bak, and it is said that they passed on a verbal message from Kim Jong Il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

Moreover, several days previously the DPRK took exceptional relation-improving steps, including agreeing to the meeting of separated families through talks between the Red Cross societies of the two countries, and releasing the ROK fishing vessel and crew which was seized for crossing the border. Concerning the Kaesong Industrial Complex also, which had temporarily stood at the crossroads of closure, it is continuing to return to life with the lifting of the restrictions on crossing the border, and an opportunity has been created for dialogue for outstanding questions such as the land lease costs and wage hikes to be discussed between the two Koreas.

Even in DPRK–United States relations where dialogue channels had been broken off with the DPRK’s nuclear tests and missile firings, the signs of change are visible. The DPRK is displaying a conciliatory position, with former US president Bill Clinton visiting the DPRK and the two US journalists who had been detained being released, and inviting Stephen Bosworth, the Special Representative for North Korea Policy, to the DPRK.

Meanwhile, in Japan an electoral revolution has occurred. ROK newspapers referred to the stunning event thus: “The Liberal Democratic Party system, which has been synonymous with the post-war Japanese political and societal system, has effectively begun to collapse, having its origin in the general election of 30 August. The foundations of the order—including the Japan–United States alliance, high growth-rates, and bureaucratic governance encapsulating the Liberal Democratic Party system—that had affected East Asia in its entirety for all that time, have again been challenged, and formally come to an end.”

The realizing of such campaign promises as equal diplomatic relations in the Democratic Party of Japan’s US policy and an emphasis on Asia signifies a shifting away from policy centered on the Pacific to policy centered on the East Sea (Sea of Japan). In addition, the view that the stalemated DPRK–Japan relations also are approaching a thaw is cautiously being raised. That Katsuya Okada, Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Japan, stated that “the abduction issue, and nuclear and missile issues should be resolved within the framework of the six party talks”, and “the sanctions against the DPRK are not sanctions for the sake of sanctions, but are sanctions to lead the DPRK to the negotiating table and to compromise” in round-table discussions with ROK special correspondents in Japan, signifies a great change of viewpoint.

If one looks at the active conciliatory line that the DPRK has shown recently to the ROK and the United States, the possibility appears to be quite high that the DPRK will present Japan with the groundbreaking card of “the return of the Japanese abductees”. In 2007 the author visited the Hochon River Power Plant in the Hamgyong-do region of the DPRK. At the large-scale hydroelectric power plant of which the DPRK is proud, it could be seen that generators were in operation which Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had produced in the 1930s. For the DPRK’s social overhead capital (railways, roads, ports, and industrial facilities) vestiges of Japan remain in place. For the DPRK, the compelling reason for Japan’s cooperation is precisely this fact.

Northeast Asia’s summer was hot. Major tectonic shifts are occurring in Northeast Asia’s political and economic environments. Even more than the light of the beacon of the Pacific which has illuminated Japan to date, the still brighter light of the East Sea (Sea of Japan) is gradually beginning to be seen. It is no longer the Age of the Pacific.

[Translated by ERINA]

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