October 09, 2006

Born of Nuclear Threats

Seismic shifts are shaking East Asia. Over just the past week or so, the USA military announced plans to deactivate from Korea by 2009, the Japanese Prime Minister (Abe) broke with tradition and reported first not to Washington but Beijing and Seoul, and North Korea for all practical purposes became a member of the nuclear club.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are well known and are not a surprise. Further, there is a big difference between testing a crude atom bomb (which may not have successfully detonated) and becoming a nuclear power of strategic significance. In its official announcement North Korea said the bomb “will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it." More than 40 years ago, the Chinese used a similar argument emphasizing the defensive necessity of obtaining nuclear weapons due to the threat of American military invasion. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has made the Korean (and Chinese) fears of American military presence on their borders and outside their harbors real. A nuclear arms race in the area is now a very real possibility.

Korea, north and south, were born of nuclear threats and as much as Americans might not like it, there are probably millions of Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel very proud and excited today. The majority of South Koreans have said they want their country to have nuclear weapons. And the Koreans are still seeking reunification. Less than a year ago the highest-ranking delegation from North Korea was in Seoul. The effort goes back to 2000 when South Korean President Roh visited Pyongyang.

What keeps the Korean peninsula apart isn’t just Kim Il-Jung and his anachronistic Stalinist state but the presence of 50,000 American troops, contractors, and their families in 100 military installations spread across South Korea. The USA continues to preside (in the same building in Seoul used by the Japanese when Korea was their colony) over a 53 year stalemate with China symbolized by the heavily armed “DeMilitarized Zone.” But all that conventional firepower and heavy troop presence is rendered moot by nuclear weapons.

And change is coming from the American side too. The commander of the 8th US Army in Korea said his command will deactivate and fall back to Hawaii within three years. Is this a signal that the long expected reduction of American presence in South Korea is begun?

But the biggest story may be the growing independence of Japan. Although President Bush gave his blessing prior to the trip, new Prime Minister Abe’s summits with China and South Korea are a positive sign and an indication that Japan may yet tire of being Asia’s “Britain.”

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