Moving into the future: building peace in North-East Asia

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Feature by James Reilly

Despite being one of the world's most dynamic economic and political regions, North-East Asian security remains surprisingly dominated by the past. Half a century after the uneasy conclusions to massive conflicts that ripped apart China,Korea, and Japan, real peace in the region remains elusive.

Nearly 100,000 US soldiers are based in Japan and South Korea, with those in Korea on trigger-ready alert for war with the North. The region contains the world's second-most well funded military (Japan), one of its largest arms importers(Taiwan), and over 1.6 million troops facing off amidst escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. Peace News rightfully shines a spotlight on a number of critical peace issues in the region; this introductory essay tries to provide some context to help tie them together.

The Cold War lives on

Legacies of the Cold War continue to shape the world of war and peace in North-East Asia. Primary among them is the US “wagon wheel” system of bilateral alliances. Designed to contain the spread of communism, since the 1990s it has morphed into a strict real politik tool to assure no state challenges US supremacy in the region, with faint nods to the growing demands for autonomy and respect in Japan and South Korea.

The Cold War also left North-East Asia with two unfinished civil wars, both of which periodically threaten explosion into massive military conflicts with disturbing regularity. Ever since the US 7th Fleet interposed itself between China and Taiwan in 1950, China has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province and so claims the right to use force if Taiwan ever formally proclaimed its independence from China.

In similar fashion, the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 dividing the peninsula for the first time in history locked the two sides into a zero-sum struggle over the right to rule a united Korea. As the South leapt ahead of the North during its economic boom in the 1980s and “socialist brotherhood” alliances with first the USSR and then China slowly evaporated, North Korea has come to rely upon belligerent bluster, a million person army, and a nascent nuclear pro-gramme to ensure its national security.

Anger with the oppressive US military presence, ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula and between China and Taiwan,and the human costs of Asia's economic boom, are all major obstacles to building a stable, just, equitable peace in North East Asia. Security structures forged in the early days of the Cold War are inadequate in response to these challenges; new approaches must be sought out.

Japan: a security threat?

Which North-East Asian country has most radically revised its security posture and dramatically increased its military capacity, creating great unease in its neighbours, victims of its brutal and generally unacknowledged militarist aggression? While Japan hardly leaps to mind, several domestic shifts in Japan in fact pose a substantial long-term challenge for regional security. First, the generation traumatised by Japan's aggression in Asia during World War II has largely passed from political influence. Younger Japanese have far less appreciation for their neighbours' fears of a re-emergence of Japanese militarism, yet their neighbours have passed on this anti-Japanese sentiment to their youth. Second, decade-long economic stagnation has replaced Japan's heady confidence of the 1980s with a disquieting sense of Japanese vulnerability to economic and security threats. Finally, progressive opposition parties have lost political ground to the conservative Democratic Party, with no effective peace demands within mainstream Japanese politics. The result has been a movement away from Japan's famed “peace constitution”,particularly Article 9 banning the use of military force. Clearly, Japan today bears little resemblance to the militarism of the 1930s. Yet if Japan's conservative politicians succeed in establishing a powerful, active military force without fully acknowledging the horrors of Japanese imperialism and embedding Japan within a restrictive multilateral structure, current trends may well lead to powerful backlashes in China and perhaps Korea.

N Korea: looking to make a deal

North Korea has sought a viable nuclear deterrent ever since it faced multiple US nuclear threats and near-launches during and after the Korean War. Kim Il Sung managed to convince the Soviets to build him a nuclear plant, although they delayed completion while pushing Pyongyang to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty. In the 1980s Pyongyang began to suggest it was willing to trade its nuclear potential for improved relations with its neighbours, particularly with the United States.

In 1993 Pyongyang went to the brink in its nuclear blackmail before former President Jimmy Carter's visit sparked the bargaining that resulted in the Agreed Frame-work. This deal traded two light-water reactors (resistant to creating weapons-grade plutonium), an interim supply of heavy oil fuel, a relaxation of US sanctions,and improvement of relations in exchange for North Korea freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear programme.

Yet the Clinton administration never carried through. Fuel deliveries were chronically late, reactor construction fell far behind schedule, most sanctions were retained, and diplomatic improvements stalled. North Korea responded in typical fashion, provoking a crisis with its 1998 missile launch over Japan. The resultant”Perry process” almost cinched a deal on North Korean missile exports and development, only to fall through for lack of time and political will.

In 2000, the new Bush administration put the North on hold for almost a year,emerging from isolation with its rhetorical guns blaring. As it was inducted into the”axis of evil”, Pyongyang began to realise that the Bush administration was unlikely to follow through on the Agreed Framework. Thus it provoked the latest crisis to try to reach yet another deal with the US.

Hiding amidst all the smoke of the recent nuclear scares is a simple truth: North Korea seeks an end to the Korean War, access to economic assistance, energy security, and assurances that the US will not attack it. If no deal emerges, the fall back option of a viable nuclear deter-rent and missile exports offer Pyongyang enhanced national security, diplomatic leverage vis-a`-vis the US and exports to earn hard currency. Yet these come at the price of international condemnation and isolation, as the recent stand off has made abundantly clear. The challenge is how to move toward a viable, sustainable deal that cuts through the angry rhetoric to engage North Korea and build toward a united and peaceful Korean peninsula.

US bases: innocents suffer, politicians dither

Massive US bases bring misery upon their unwilling “hosts”; the local population. Cases of sexual misconduct by US service-men, the long-term environmental degradation, and the loss of tourism have all been cited in demands for a US withdrawal by the residents in Okinawa, host to the majority of US forces in Japan. In South Korea, the population of Seoul exploded when two US servicemen were acquitted in November of running over two middle-school girls with their armoured vehicle during a military training exercise in downtown Seoul.

Politicians in Japan and South Korea give rhetorical support to these local movements for fears of electoral reprisals,yet they refuse join demand that the US military leave their countries. In Japan,some fear that a US withdrawal would spark a military build-up by Japan's Self-Defence Forces. For South Korea, US forces based between the 38th Parallel and Seoul act as a “tripwire,” ensuring US participation in any Korean conflict. To gain widespread Japanese and Korean support for US withdrawal, it must be accompanied by policies that lead to a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula and enmeshment of Japan within a region-wide multilateral security framework.

Prosperity and peace

The East Asian “miracle” proclaimed by the World Bank in 1990 has had a decidedly mixed impact upon peace in North East Asia. Newfound prosperity in South Korea and Taiwan has grown along with democracy, rendering the societies increasingly unwilling to allow military tensions to undermine their current comforts. Demands for human rights protection, including the vibrant movement for claiming the right to conscientious objection in South Korea (described by Andreas Speck in this issue) reflect the growing dissatisfaction with militarism within these societies.

China has also enjoyed historic levels of economic growth over the past two decades. The Chinese experiment with”socialism with Chinese characteristics” has given rise to an unruly, free-wheeling market economy that has expanded personal freedoms and individual prosperity for millions of Chinese. To preserve this growth, China's leadership has pursued engagement with the world community while moderating its foreign policy. Per-haps the most powerful example is the some 200,000 Taiwanese living in Shanghai--a powerful force constraining military adventurism by either side.

Yet prosperity has also exacerbated inequities, creating labour migrants vulnerable to repression in the famed sweatshops in Hong Kong, southern China, and South Korea. In this edition, Pranjal Tiwari and Christian Karl offer powerful examples of ways in which workers are fighting back to defend their rights. Protection of labour rights within and across national boundaries is essential for ensuring that the benefits of growth are shared equitably.

Greater wealth has also given nations the ability to buy more advanced weapons, creating a destabilising downward spiral of arms races, weapons proliferation, and growing insecurity. The US plan to build Theatre Missile Defence systems in South Korea and Japan is but the latest and most pernicious development in this dangerous trend. Only region-wide non-proliferation structures,such as a nuclear weapons free zone for part of North-East Asia, can turn this trend around.

What to do: building peace in North-East Asia

Clearly, peace work in North-East Asia proceeds along many important lines: I highlight three for particular attention. Engage China and North Korea. While honest, constructive criticism on issues such as human rights can help gain reforms, isolation breeds distrust and fear while engagement builds understanding and common interests. NGOs can oftengo where governments may not; they have a unique opportunity to reach out and build direct, interpersonal ties.

Oppose militarism and seek economic justice. Peace always starts at home. Ending conscription in Korea, fostering respect for workers' rights in Hong Kong, even protecting the environment in China are all part of building more peaceful, democratic societies. Demand changes in US foreign policy. The US should withdraw its military forces, cease its arms sales, and end the antagonism toward North Korea. The EU has an opportunity to pursue a more constructive, peaceful path; activists can point the way.

Topics: Global south