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United in Their Protests, Not Their Politics

South Korea, Japan and China all reassess their policies, which could produce new tensions.

October 11, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — North Korea's announcement that it had tested a nuclear device is pushing Japan, China and the two Koreas into a new era that challenges existing assumptions about security and diplomacy in a region riven by deep historical grudges and modern rivalries.

But there is no consensus on how Northeast Asia's delicate relationships will realign.

Despite a harmonized condemnation of the North Korean test, deep fault lines over how to deal with Kim Jong Il's regime still run through the region's governments. Although Japanese leaders took the test as vindication of their long-standing hard line against Pyongyang and contemplated how much harder they could push, the South Korean government spent Tuesday examining the tatters of a policy that had been trying to woo Kim toward reconciliation with economic aid and increased cross-border contacts.

"We are in for a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula and we need some ideas on how to stabilize the situation," says Moon Chung-in, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul's Yonsei University. "People say this is the end of our engagement policy with the North, but if you stop engaging with them, what do you have?

"If you stop engagement, you have war."

Clearly, some diplomatic policies will be casualties, while new political boundaries are being crossed. The once-taboo subject of a Japanese nuclear deterrent was discussed -- though quickly smothered -- in Japan's parliament Tuesday. And Japanese leaders called for tough sanctions against Pyongyang, refusing to rule out any options, including military action.

Meanwhile, politicians in Seoul launched a clamorous debate about whether their historic "sunshine policy" has irrevocably failed and should be scrapped. Conservative critics accused President Roh Moo-hyun of blithely providing aid to North Korea while the recipient diverted resources into building a bomb, and they demanded an end to cross-border economic ties such as the joint North-South Kaesong industrial park.

"There are still some segments of our society who want to maintain dialogue and don't want to see the North cornered," said Gong Ro-myung, a former foreign minister under conservative South Korean governments in the 1990s. "But the engagement policy has completely failed. And the consensus on the streets is: Enough is enough."

China found itself agreeing with the United States on the need to punish Pyongyang. But there was no certainty over how hard Beijing was prepared to squeeze Pyongyang's economic windpipe in an attempt to curb its brinkmanship. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao ruled out military action, calling it an "unimaginable way" forward. But the application of economic sanctions will require careful calibration in order to hurt, without shattering, Kim's regime, observers said, noting that China is anxious to avoid a political implosion in North Korea that could spark an exodus of refugees and the freelance spread of nuclear technology.

Indeed, parts of the Chinese political establishment are as disturbed by the secondary shocks the North Korean test has released, notably the risk that Japan could use Pyongyang's entrance into the nuclear club as a pretext to become a nuclear power itself.

"The risk of a regional arms race shows how urgent it is to solve the North Korean issue," said Xu Wenji, professor of North Korean studies at Jilin University in northeast China.

A nuclear Japan would mark a radical reordering of Asian power politics, and new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved quickly to ensure that it was North Korea's bomb, not a potential Japanese weapon, that was the focus of global concern.

"We have no intention of changing our policy that possessing nuclear weapons is not our option," Abe told the Japanese parliament Tuesday. "There will be no change in our non-nuclear policy principles."

Japanese officials said that despite widespread fear and loathing of the Kim regime in Japan, there was little popular desire to possess nuclear weapons in the only country that has ever been a victim of their use.

"In Japan, there are divisions over virtually every issue -- except this one," said Hiroshi Suzuki, a spokesman for Abe. If a political leader proposed making Japan a nuclear power, "the entire Japanese nation would reject it," he said.

But Japan is clearly on edge. Early today, national broadcaster NHK reported a possible second North Korean test, but the seismic signal was quickly discounted and may have been prompted by an earthquake.

Most observers expect Japan to accelerate its participation in the U.S. missile defense program. Japan has already committed itself to help build the unproven system, which a growing number of observers believe will eventually be stationed on Japanese vessels or soil.

There was also a sense that South Korea might take operational control of the military forces stationed on the Korean peninsula.

"We need to reinforce our commitments to the United States," said former foreign minister Gong. "This crisis shows how we need the nuclear umbrella of the United States, because South Korea cannot go nuclear."

In fact, while no one expects differences among South Korea, Japan and China to evaporate, some observers say the North Korean announcement has been a reminder to those nations of the need to cooperate on security. Relations had soured in recent years as the three countries squabbled about the sincerity of Japanese atonement for World War II and quarreled over territory. And Pyongyang cultivated and exploited that mistrust on its road to building a bomb.

But by raising tensions with the announced test, Kim seems to have reinforced shared interests among his neighbors. "North Korea has pushed China and South Korea toward us," said Abe spokesman Suzuki.

Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.

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