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Disturbing Disconnects in the US-Japan Alliance

Image by The White House/Flickr.

President Barack Obama won a second term and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has returned to power in Tokyo, with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reclaiming the Prime Minister’s Office. All should be right in the alliance as familiar faces and capable hands retain or regain the reins of government, right? Not exactly.

Recent conversations, in conferences and in Tokyo, with officials and analysts from both countries, have highlighted troubling divergences in thinking. The US-Japan alliance remains popular in both countries, but a convergence of strategic and security concerns belies an undercurrent of emotion and uncertainty in Japan that must be acknowledged and addressed.

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Foreign policy

The China-Japan Tango, Talks, and Time

Japanese Anti-China protests. Photo: Al Jazeera/flickr

Professor Dong Wang (“China-Japan Relations-Now What?”) is to be applauded for distilling a number of frictions bedeviling the China-Japan relationship, identifying root causes of these frictions, and making a number of policy proposals. Even so, other issues require consideration if Sino-Japanese relations are to be put on a sounder footing, a goal to which all should aspire given the fallout of a true bilateral deep freeze or, worse, militarized conflict. First, policymakers in both countries need to understand that “their” tango includes more countries than just themselves. Second, they need to appreciate that talks are insufficient and may even be counterproductive. Third, they need to strive for more wide-ranging and creative options to deal with the history (time) problem.

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International Relations Government

North Korea: A Sign of Change or the Same-Old Rhetoric?

Wall painting of the late Kim Il Sung. Photo: yeowatzup/flickr

Kim Jong-un’s New Year message emphasized, among other issues, the importance of inter-Korean relations. While many observers read this as a signal that North Korea plans to open-up in 2013, some bloggers and defectors beg to differ, claiming that Kim’s message contained the same old rhetoric of the past half century.

The North Korean leader’s message was well-received by some Western and South Korean media outlets. The New York Times, for example, suggested  that Kim’s speech was an ‘overture’ to the South. The paper was particularly intrigued by his comment that the “key to ending the divide of the nation and achieving reunification is to end the situation of confrontation between the North and the South”. Indeed, the same can also be said of Kim’s belief that “a basic precondition to improving North-South relations and advancing national reunification is to honor and implement North-South joint declarations”.

Others dug a little deeper. South Korea’s Unification Ministry blog parsed the statement by keywords and counted that the word ‘unification’ was used 22 times and often in conjunction with “frequent”. This, the blog concludes, reflects a pattern that has emerged over the past three years that suggests that increasing openness by North Korea is on the horizon.

Many observers were also intrigued by the change in format for the New Year’s message. Instead publishing his statement via the North Korean press – as favored by his late father – Kim emulated his grandfather and gave a televised address. This, suggests the North Korean Leadership Watch blog, adds credibility to arguments that Kim has been trying to emulate Kim il-Sung in order to win wider support among the North Korean population. The founder of North Korea was thought to be widely loved by the population, whereas Kim Jong-il was more feared than respected. Some reports have even speculated that Kim Jung-un intentionally gained weight and mimicked the way his grandfather walked and clapped.

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A Dead End? The Northern Limit Line and the Future of Inter-Korean Relations

Image by Jon Pavelka/Flickr.

Following her election as South Korea’s first female president on December 19, 2012, Park Geun-hye identified North Korea as one of the main challenges facing her administration. Her approach to relations with the North will likely be different from her predecessors as she seeks a middle ground between Lee Myung-bak’s principled engagement and the unconditional engagement of the Sunshine Policy era. In particular, Park has spoken extensively about the need to establish a trust-based relationship with North Korea. Her success in establishing a trust-based approach will, in part, depend upon the effective management of issues relating to the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime boundary between the two Koreas in the West Sea. However, Park’s diplomatic efforts are likely to be compromised by Pyongyang’s continued refusal to recognize the NLL. And while this dispute requires an urgent solution, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement over how to define the sea boundary between North and South Korea is likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.

But why has this issue been so difficult to resolve? One of the main difficulties has been in how to best approach management of the NLL. Toward the end of his term in office, President Roh Moo-hyun sought to address the NLL issue when he visited North Korea as part of the second inter-Korean Summit. President Roh proposed a “West Sea Peace and Cooperation Special Zone” that would allow free access for fishing vessels from both Koreas and the development of a special economic zone in the North Korean port of Haeju. But while the proposal was identified in the Joint Agreement at the end of the summit, no concrete procedures were established and follow-up discussions failed. One of the major sticking points was Pyongyang’s insistence that waters south of the NLL fell under North Korean territory.

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International Relations Security

A Saudi Perspective on Yemen

A minaret in Sana'a
A minaret in Sana'a Photo: Ai@ce/flickr

On 3 June – only days after he vowed not to step down or make further concessions – Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was seriously wounded in an attack on the presidential palace and flown to Riyadh for medical treatment. If he does not return by early August, the constitution provides for fresh elections to be held. To a considerable extent, therefore, Yemen’s fate now lies in the hands of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council, have tried to broker a transition plan in Yemen before – to no avail. With Saleh now under Saudi authority and no longer on the political scene, their room for maneuver behind the scenes has greatly increased. Sure — cutting a deal between an increasingly fragmented opposition and an embattled administration remains extremely difficult. But Saudi Arabia has every reason to throw its weight behind negotiations for a peaceful power transition.