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
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
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
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
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
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
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)