WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2013 — 2013 has dawned with a flurry of change in the Pacific Rim.
North Korea, a deeply tragic land of poverty, starvation, and tyranny, broke its train of embarrassing missile launch failures and successfully lifted a missile into outer space. North Korea claimed the launch was part of a peaceful space program, but South Korean technicians scrutinizing the debris of the North Korean rocket found evidence of the rocket’s military purposes. North Korea has developed technological ties with Iran in its efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Those most directly affected by this launch are the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan, the United States, and China.
Japan and South Korea are especially strong allies and trading partners for the United States. North Korea is locked in a 60 year “Cold” (and sometimes hot) war with its own kith and kin in the South, and by extension the United States and its staunch ally Japan. China, from its Communist era roots and later in the normal conflict of dominant world powers, also opposes US interests at most times and in most places. Hotspots like Syria, Taiwan, and the South China Sea have a military sub-text, and other areas, like Africa, trade regulations, info and tech battles, have economic and political ramifications.
The United States, with its 40,000 plus mile Pacific coastline, vies with China as the largest and most powerful Pacific Rim nation. That coastline is now within range of a North Korean nuclear attack.
It is vital that these nations reach and retain long term stability, yet with the exception of the US, all other countries involved start 2013 with completely new, first time leaders. Xi Jinping took over the fifth-generation leadership of China, Shinzo Abe’s far-right cabinet has just taken over control in Japan, and President-elect Park Geun-hye will be inaugurated in South Korea in February. Include North Korea, and the leadership changes in all four countries of Northeast Asia occur at roughly the same time.
It is clear that careful coordination among allies, even including cooperation from China, is needed to deal with the enormous problems of North Korea. North Korea’s problems include extreme poverty, tyranny, a very young leader, and nuclear capabilities. This is especially worrisome considering that the world has a record of perfect failure over the long course of trying to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The leaders of all these nations are new to one another, yet already serious tensions exist among them, even among those meant to be supportive of one another. These are especially acute over postures and policies related to control over a small island group known as Senkaku in Japan and as Diaoyu in China, and what are known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan. These latter are two tiny volcanic islets, poking up from the sea that can be scaled only by wooden steps that ascend almost vertically. As Chico Harlan explains, a pulley system hauls food to a cafeteria built 300 feet above the waves.
The only mailbox on the islands has a notice stenciled on the front, reminding that service will be slow because mail is picked up every two months.
Harlan speaks of:
A region-wide surge of nationalism and upcoming political leadership changes in South Korea, Japan and China. As a result, countries that once played down territorial disputes now use them to foment national pride. These small islands have become dangerous friction points between Asia’s most economically linked countries, with all sides calling their claims irrefutable and just, and brushing aside the idea of compromise.
These are so-called modern nation states creating trouble. Even 4 year old children are strictly forbidden to behave like this.
Childish behavior of this sort is all the worse when leaders are new and unfamiliar to one another. This makes it an especially bad time to irritate neighbors and allies with reckless and provocative foreign policy, stirring up old and intractable conflict.
Additionally, forging sound foreign relations become ever more difficult in the context of the deeply debilitating cacophony of domestic relations that plague the leadership efforts of each leader in the mix. Obama, Park, and Abe have very strong and virulent domestic opposition.
It is for all of these reasons, and for the fact that democracies change leaders so constantly, that the habitual obsession with political personalities must be diminished, and that the pursuit of constructive international relations transcend the faddish, paparazzi type coverage and analysis of political affairs. The shared responsibilities of elected and appointed leaders, the media, and politically informed readers and viewers should transcend and shed its dependency and obsession with the comings and goings of political personalities.
Greater attention must be given to legislation and policy that outlives administrations, and to trends and initiatives taking place independently of state actors.
On July 1 of this year, both chambers of Congress of, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at protecting the welfare of ‘stateless’ North Korean children. The bill, the North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012 states that “hundreds of thousands of North Korean children suffer from malnutrition in North Korea, and North Korean children or children of one North Korean parent who are living outside of North Korea may face statelessness in neighboring countries.” The objectives of the bill are multifaceted, but have the overarching aim of protecting North Korean children.
This is wise legislation that brings North Korea under a humanitarian and human rights microscope, not merely a security one, and in so doing creates a legitimate platform for a far greater community of nations to involve themselves in the complex global difficulties this nation causes. Concern for child welfare is perennial, not limited to the special interests of one or two countries, and not bound to the political leanings of this or that administration. Even North Korea itself has to be attracted to the prospect of positive welfare for its children and its future. This is the sort of creative politics that so perfectly transcends the tired and always failing “peace talks,” that dominate political and media chatter, and uses up our money and resources in the never successful pursuit of “peace.”
Another non-State-actor phenomenon that impacts North Korea’s sick imprisonment of its own people is the electronics and media smuggling activity carried out by North Korean defectors along the North Korea – China border. This activity is steadily and increasingly exposing North Koreans to the realities of the outside world, and by natural extension undermines the ability for central government to control its people. The erosion of absolute central control is a vital step for world powers to be able to engage the country and take necessary steps to defuse the potential terror this totalitarian tyranny represents.
In case anyone doubts the impact of this sort of activity, AP in Hunchun, China reports this from North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un in his speech at the headquarters of his immensely powerful internal security service: “We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration.” Kim called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.” The assault that he fears? Cheap televisions rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and smuggled mobile phones that — if you can get a Chinese signal along the border — can call the outside world.
A Seoul-based Christian missionary runs a string of safe houses in this part of China, where his network helps people living underground after fleeing North Korea. One safe house is reserved for traders who sell everything from electronics to shoes inside North Korea.
The North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012, and the civilian based smuggling of knowledge into Korea are just two examples of non-personality obsessed activity with strong potential to influence deeply needed and desired outcomes in arenas of tension and political conflict.
Responsible media should have a broader mindset when engaging readers in domestic and international issues and actions. We should not be limited to printing inches and TV hours chasing around Ms. Park, Mr. Obama, and company day and night. Let’s reserve celebrity worship for celebrities. Put those magazines near the grocery checkout for those who need them, and let the rest of us begin to engage culture and politics in more mature ways. Let’s stop treating elected leaders like winners of American Idol, and rather incorporate them into a more complex approach to change not limited to the narrow range activity for which elected officials are responsible.
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