In August 2011, I attended a conference in Sweden organized by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Korean think tank, and the FOI (Swedish Defense Agency). The conference focused on political change in northeast Asia during 2012 when there were scheduled political transitions in Russia, China, Taiwan, South Korea, presumably in Japan (since Japan changes leaders quite often), and an anticipated change in North Korea. In one fell swoop there were anticipated changes in government either through elections or leadership transition in the entire region. As such, I thought I would walk you through the last year, beginning with a look at these countries in order of relevance to Korea.
Russia is not much of a player in northeast Asia. Its impact on the Korean peninsula is limited compared to what it was in the 1950s, both in terms of its capacity and its intent or its ability to influence. Russia wants to be at the table, but it is not a player in a serious way in northeast Asia today. If you look at the political transition that took place in Russia in early 2012, it was just musical chairs among the same guys and had little impact on Korea.
Taiwan had a presidential election on 14 January 2012 between Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) and Tsai Ying-wen (the Democratic Party). That election had the potential to shake up the region, but that did not happen. Ma was the candidate the Chinese wanted and with whom they were comfortable. His reelection assured the situation would remain stable. As a result, Taiwan’s election did not have much direct impact on Korea.
Japan is a country that has seen six prime ministers in six years. It is tied up in its domestic and internal problems. The presumption has long been that political change in Japan would have very little impact on Korea. However, in the last two months, there have been several developments in Japan that have made Japan much more of an issue than it otherwise would have been. On this wonderful campus where there is no graffiti, I noticed that on the global map in the Kennedy Center, there is a segment on the map where it says “East Sea” or “Sea of Japan” and where it appears that the words have been crossed out and remarked over and over again. This is symbolic of the ongoing contest between Korea and Japan dealing with historical legacy issues, not only with the naming of that sea but also dealing with a small islet, or island, called Dokdo that the Japanese call Takeshima, which has flared up in recent months. In August, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island, an act that angered the Japanese who also claim sovereignty over the island. Partly as a result of these sensitive issues and a similar territory dispute Japan has with China over the Senkaku Islands, or what the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, there was a significant change during the election for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party—not the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ, but the opposition LDP. The reason this election is important is because former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo previously rose to power on a relatively nationalistic platform with strong positions on North Korea. Former Prime Minister Abe has now returned to a leadership position after a campaign during which he suggested he would revisit sensitive issues such as past government apologies and that he would take a harder line on issues like Dokdo/Takeshima or the Senkaku Islands. With these political developments, there is now a vicious cycle going on between Seoul and Tokyo.