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Looking for a Cooperative Future
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By Chung Jae-Ho

The new year has dawned and, as always, we make our best wishes for a productive beginning. The last couple of years have been replete with confrontation among China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, rendering East Asian cooperation almost an implausible task.

Toward the end of last year, however, new clues were offered by Beijing's aspirations for a "harmonious world", Seoul's "peace and prosperity" initiative, and Tokyo's renewed interest in improving relations with its Asian neighbors.

East Asia is no Europe, and we should start from that very fact. Whereas Europe is working toward community building, much of East Asia is still struggling with nation building. We should never take for granted that time will solve all of East Asia's problems. Meaningful groundwork for constructing regional identity and cooperation must be laid before all those with painful memories of the first half of the 20th century pass away.

What, then, need to be done? Governments in the region must pay special attention to two clusters of issues.

First, China-Japan relations must improve to provide a major pillar for East Asian cooperation. While Sino-Japanese relations have gone through ebbs and flows typical of any relationship between two great powers, they are characterized by extreme fragility and vulnerability. Consensus on rights and wrongs in history are often difficult to achieve but that does not mean that history means any less. In fact, in many cases, using history to pinpoint the victims is not such a daunting task.

Foreign policy is more often than not an extension of domestic politics. Politicians are out for maximizing votes but there should be limits as to what they cannot say and do vis--vis their valuable neighbors. Healing takes time, but if salt is constantly rubbed on old wounds they may never heal.

As long as Sino-Japanese relations remain susceptible to the vagaries of domestic politics, little hope can be found in regard to building genuine East Asian cooperation. Concerted efforts need to be made to enhance mutual understanding between China and Japan, without which regional cooperation is unlikely to come about.

Sino-Japanese relations are full of rhetoric and caveats. But what we need is new thinking that can really work. The mind is what matters most, not the words.

The second cluster of issues that need to be resolved concerns North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. North Korea's clandestine nuclear weapons program has stood in the way of East Asian cooperation since the early 1990s. The 1994 Geneva Accord was designed to provide a light water reactor in return for the abolition of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program collapsed in 2002 after North Korea's highly enriched uranium program was revealed.

Opinions vary as to who should be held responsible for the second nuclear crisis as some attribute the current Bush administration's antagonistic stance to the conundrum whereas others underline North Korea's commitment to becoming a nuclear weapons state. Still others highlight the "carrot-only" nature of Seoul's sunshine policy as a catalyst for the unfortunate development. Despite all, one thing is clear: North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb on October 9.

North Korea's nuclear test will have a multitude of negative effects on the Korean Peninsula as well as on the rest of East Asia. In the short run, the test has introduced a whole new range of variables into the equation. Even the prospect of the six-party talks remains uncertain. In the long run, without the complete resolution of North Korea nuclear conundrum, the region will face a serious security dilemma in which mutual suspicion reinforces armaments, enhancing the likelihood of military confrontation.

Voices are heard recently, though still largely in private, saying that the red line now should be drawn at preventing fissionable materials and weapon-related products and technologies from coming out of North Korea. This view presupposes that, sooner or later, North Korea will be recognized as a de facto and, later, de jure nuclear weapons state and, therefore, non-proliferation should receive the highest priority. Such a view is both alarming and dangerous for the long-term stability and peace in the region.

All the concerned parties, China and the United States in particular, must draw their red line at preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapons state. That bottom line should be pronounced loud and clear. Washington should be more proactive in resolving the nuclear problem once and for all by demonstrating that the North Korea is a top priority. Cool reasoning should precede ideological preferences.

Since the outburst of the second nuclear crisis, China has made strenuous efforts to find a way out of this complicated labyrinth. China should realize a nuclear North Korea may pose a serious strategic threat to itself and, therefore, denuclearization should be Beijing's top priority as well. China's role as a responsible great power is duly expected.

Other parties should also make concerted efforts toward the denuclearization of the North Korea. Above all, North Korea must realize that the marginal returns from developing nuclear weapons began to decline with the October 9 test. Once all the concerned parties concur that nuclear weapons are no longer Pyongyang's bargaining chip, entirely new tactics and responses may be developed, further dropping if not eliminating the returns for the administration there.

Everyone is running out of time. Both incentive provisions and pressure tactics need to be employed to first stop the 5-megwatt reactor from producing plutonium that is sufficient for one bomb a year. Then, we should proceed step by step with inspections, termination and abolition of the nuclear weapons related materials and infrastructure. A full rollback is a tough challenge but certainly worth trying for the sake of East Asian peace and stability.

Northeast Asia has come to a crossroads. A hundred years from now, we may retrospectively view the current era as the beginning of strategic sea changes in the region. As an old saying goes, a crisis has two edges opportunity as well as danger. Once we get over this critical phase successfully and cooperatively, we may find ourselves having already developed certain identities of our own, paving the way for regional cooperation in its genuine sense.

Let us wish that the year 2007 provides the basis for just that a cooperative future.

Chung Jae-ho is professor and chair of the Department of International Relations at Seoul National University.

(China Daily January 12, 2007)


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