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Asia Prefers To Quietly Calm Down North Korea

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By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth News Analysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) - While the Anglo-American international media has been beating the war drums on North Korean leader Jong-un’s threats to fire missiles at American bases in the region, commentaries in Asian newspapers have focused on why nobody in the region wants war and that trouble makers must be quietly calmed down.

Late March, President Kim, approved a plan to attack the U.S. mainland, Hawaii and Guam if the United States attacks the country. The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling party, listed U.S. military bases in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Misawa, Aomori and Okinawa in Japan as potential attack targets.

The United States has since dispatched a sea-based high-performance X-band radar, which has early warning capability, and two Aegis-equipped destroyers to the western Pacific and areas near the Korean Peninsula. Washington also decided to deploy a state-of-the-art missile defence system to Guam to be ready within weeks.

The latest war of words in the Korean peninsula has brought into clear focus China’s crucial role of a peacemaker in the region. Traditionally China was seen as a close ally of North Korea, but, recently there have been clear indications from South Korea that they see China as an important trading partner in the region, which could transform into a political partnership that could help to solve the Korean crisis once and for all.

Immediately after being elected as President, Park Geun-hye dispatched a high-level delegation to Beijing led by her former campaign director Kim Moo-sung. She is due to make her first overseas visit to the United States in May, but, now there are calls from within South Korea that she should visit China first, if the Korean crisis is to be defused quickly.

Writing in the China Daily, Sukjoon Yoon, senior research fellow at the Korean Institute of Maritime Strategy argued that instead of “mechanically replicating traditional thinking by laying emphasis on its alliance with the United States” by making her first official visit to the US, President Park should go to China first.

“The commitment of the Republic of Korea's president to a ‘confidence-building process on the Korean Peninsula’ should set the agenda for the ROK's relations with China,” he added.

Unlike her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, who was unyielding toward the DPRK (North Korea), Park is seen as more liberal. “That's why China now appears ready to respond to her fresh approach,” notes Yoon. “After the nuclear brinkmanship of the last few months, senior Chinese figures, including some in the People's Liberation Army, have hinted that they could meet with their ROK (South Korea) counterparts.”

“China is the only country that can influence DPRK leaders. This in itself is a good enough reason for Park to visit Beijing before Washington,” argues Yoon.

“There is a new development in China’s foreign policy,” notes Shen Dingli, associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University. “Foreign Minister Wang Yi also made it clear that China will not allow anyone to make trouble on its doorstep.”

No selfish gains

While this comment was quickly got hold of by the international media as a sign of China’s displeasure at the young North Korean leader’s brinkmanship, Dingli interprets it differently.  “Some countries recently have been stirring up trouble in China's surrounding areas … an outside power coming from afar has made a show of force with its local allies. All these have created a foul atmosphere around China,” he observed in a commentary published in China Daily.

“China doesn't seek selfish gains, but it will not stand by and let others stir up trouble on its doorstep. China's demand for a peaceful surrounding environment is based on international law, which stipulates that international waters or exclusive economic zones and the airspace above them can only be used for peaceful purposes and no country has the right to make trouble there,” he argues. “It is time for China to adjust its foreign policy.”

The latest Korean flare-up is not seen in isolation but in the context of US President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ foreign policy shift. China and many countries in the region have noted an increase in tension in the region since this announcement. Some recent belligerent moves by US’s traditional allies in the region, the Philippines and Japan against China’s maritime claims has not been seen positively by many countries in the region, who wants peace not conflict.

Even Singapore’s Straits Times in an editorial was critical of the US action in sending bombers on dummy runs over the Korean peninsula, but, welcomed US’s latest decision to suspend an intercontinental missile test in the region.

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said: “Repeating threatening words and actions, Pyongyang is seeking nuclear armaments that will menace global peace and security. This is intolerable.” But, it argues that it is essential for Japan, the United States, South Korea and China to coordinate thoroughly in dealing with North Korea. The newspaper also expressed concern that President Kim don’t seem to have that close a rapport with Chinese leaders as his father and grandfather did.

Pivot to Asia

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s former Air Force Chief of Staff, Chappy Hakim writing in the Jakarta Post has questioned the timing and motives of the US’s so-called Pivot to Asia.  He seems to suggest that the US is trying to encourage conflict in the region by offering to arm its allies and stationing Marines in Australia.

“The most shocking reports have been that US Marines might be posted with US military aircraft to Darwin, Australia, with the mission of natural disaster management. This is absurd, as there has never been such a precedent,” he notes, adding: “People are starting to wonder why now. Given that the South China Sea has been a source of potential conflict for decades, why has the US decided to act now? Is it due to American fears over Chinese economic growth?”

Thus, seen in this context, many observers in the region tend to view North Korea’s latest threats, not really in terms of a “Korean Crisis”, but, more about how China asserts its influence in the region in a peaceful cooperative fashion.

While China has been signalling its intention to calm down the North Korean leadership, South Korean President Park’s offer of direct talks with its northern neighbour has been welcomed in the region. As the Korean Times said in an editorial: “On the bright side, however, her offer of talks may help Kim make an easier decision to retreat from his threat of war because it will certainly help him save face. She would be given due credit should tension deescalate for inter-Korean talks.” [IDN-InDepthNews – April 16, 2013]

Photo credit: KUTV.com

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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