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2012 Political Transition in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula

L. Gordon Flake

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.

China’s political transition is the most opaque. The Eighteenth Party Congress starts on 8 November; it is widely anticipated that Xi Jinping will take over as the president [he did] and Li Keqiang will take over as prime minister [he did]. However, the normally smooth, carefully orchestrated transition in China has been bumpy this year. There has been the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, past Party Secretary from Chongqing, and the very high profile embarrassing trial of him and his wife that have forced the party to close ranks. China also had an economic slowdown. There was a period of time—nineteen to twenty days—where Xi Jinping did not show up. It was a “Where’s Waldo?” type of thing with everyone trying to find out where he was. It turned out he had a backache. The reason this is important to Korea is that, for example, over the last year and a half, China has been more recalcitrant than normal in dealing with North Korea, and we have expected them to be more cooperative as North Korea’s tested nuclear weapons, long range missiles, etc. Instead, because of their own domestic political problems, they have been more unwilling to move in that direction. That is something that has been furthered by the Arab Spring—the notion of popular uprising against unpopular leaders. On top of that has been added the question of the territorial disputes, not only with Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but also over the entire south China Seas where China has taken an increasing bellicose, nationalist stance.


That leads me to North Korea, a country that has tremendous ability to impact South Korea. Everybody expected Kim Jung Il to die; we just did not know when. He was old, he had a stroke, he had diabetes, there was a lot of trouble he had gone through, and he lived a hard life. Nobody really foresaw the exact day of his reckoning, if you will—December of last year [2011]. Most watchers put a potential North Korean political transition at the end of the line, but with Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea jumped to the front of the line. The succession in Pyongyang went far faster and far smoother than anyone expected. There has been a third generation, hereditary transition of power in a communist nation, which those of you who study communism know is anathema in such systems. This twenty-nine to thirty-year-old man, Kim Jung Un, is dressing up in his grandfather’s 1950s era Vinylon suits and building dolphinariums, amusement parks, and roller coasters, while the country at large continues to starve. On the one hand it is tempting to think that North Korea has changed the most because of all the shiny objects, but if you look at the policies, the political transition in Pyongyang has probably had the least impact in terms of direct change.

Finally, let me move on and talk about South Korea itself. There are three main candidates vying for a presidency where the election will be held in December [2012]. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of a former dictator in South Korea Park Chung Hee, who has been the leader of the party for a long time; Moon Jae-in is a chief of staff of the previous progressive South Korean president; An Cheol-soo is a software engineer and a very popular public favorite outside candidate. In contrast to our election, in which both parties are moving away from the center and becoming much more vitriolic in their own partisan rhetoric and in their positions, Koreas candidates have moved toward the center. Park Geun-hye has been campaigning on principles of social justice and economic justice, which are liberal concepts in Korea and suggest a strategy to take over that middle ground. Moon Jae-in has done everything he can to distance himself from the more progressive and more radical policies of his predecessor and the progressive camp. An Cheol-soo seems to be in the middle road on most issues, so this is a race for the middle. In my book, the organization and structure of the Park Geun-hye campaign and the way she has comported herself is such that she has a really good chance of being Korea’s first-ever female president [and she is].

The next president in the U.S. and the next president of South Korea are going to have to deal with North Korea, first and foremost, and come up with a common policy for North Korea. They will also need to implement new missile guidelines and navigate the fallout from that. In the news last week, the U.S. and South Korea negotiated an agreement to extend the range of South Korean missiles from 500 km to 800 km, a decision that had ramifications for Japan and China. There is also a very difficult nuclear cooperation agreement that has to be negotiated by June 2013, under which the U.S. allows Koreans to use U.S. nuclear technology for energy, but which has become increasingly sensitive as South Korea expands in own nuclear capabilities. The renegotiation of the transfer of wartime operational control is a possibility depending on who wins the election/status of forces agreements, burden sharing, who pays for military items—these are all extremely important issues.

Let me end by giving you one example of the type of programs Mansfield does and that I have been involved in. We started in 2006 in the worst era of the Roh Moo-hyun/Bush administration—a program we called the Mansfield Committee on U.S.–Korea Relations. The idea was to figure out which individuals in Korea and which individuals in the U.S. were likely to serve politically in a post–Bush administration and in a post–Roh Moo-hyun administration. Who has the juice, who has the networks, who has the drive, who has positioned themselves well? This was all two years before Lee Myung-bak was elected, and we got lucky. We picked all the right ones. Now we are faced with a very similar situation, and we are trying to do the same thing. Over the course of the last year, we had several meetings where we hammered out among a group of democrats and republicans and conservatives and progressives in Korea a series of recommendations, where we try to put out very specifically a list of principles for policy coordination in North Korea—a list of five things to do in the first six months of an administration, and a list of five things not to do during the first six months of administration, a list of things to expect, upcoming events or things North Korea might say or do that you should anticipate, and then a calendar of key decision points that are coming. We gave it to everyone we could in the Obama campaign and in the Romney campaign. Then I went to Seoul at the end of July and gave it to every one of the leading candidates. The hope is that because of our recommendations some of those policies are implemented. That is how we were trying to directly influence a policy.

Now, when I get smart enough that I can lay out in great detail how we will solve the crisis of the Senkaku Islands or the Dokdo/Takeshima, or how we will solve the North Korean nuclear problem, or the litany of issues I have laid out, then I might actually be deserving of an alumni award. Today, I will take it as an honor, and I am glad to be here.

Adapted from Flake’s Distinguished Alumni talk given 11 October 2012. He joined the Mansfield Foundation in February 1999, having previously worked as a senior fellow and associate director of the Program on Conflict Resolution at the Atlantic Council of the U.S. as well as being the director for research and academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Flake is editor of the companion volumes One Step Back? Reassessing an Ideal Security State for Northeast Asia 2025 (2011) and Toward an Ideal Security State for Northeast Asia 2025 (2010) and has authored numerous book chapters on policy issues in Asia and is a regular contributor to the U.S. and Asian press. He is a member of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, and a board member of the U.S. Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (USCSCAP) and the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Flake also serves on the Advisory Council of the Korea Economic Institute of America. He received a BA degree in Korean, minor in international relations, and a MA from BYU.