Schoolyard bickering replacing diplomacy

Weston S. Konishi

Written for The Daily Yomiuri (Washington Japanwatch)

August 10, 2005
The six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs started on a high diplomatic note last week. When lead Japanese negotiator Kenichiro Sasae mentioned the abduction of Japanese by North Korean agents, his North Korean counterpart dismissively rolled his eyes and looked away, according to news reports.
Such petty gestures are not uncommon when dealing with North Korean diplomats, who sometimes sit on higher chairs in order to look down at counterparts across the negotiating table. But the diplomatic conduct of the other five parties involved in the talks is hardly a model of statesmanship either, especially when dealing with each other.
Recently it seems that arrogance and bravado, rather than measured diplomacy, are the defining traits of statecraft in the region. The past several years have witnessed a series of comments and gestures by leaders across Northeast Asia that have wantonly damaged fragile relations for the sake of narrow domestic interests. Similar insults may have in the past been dismissed as gaffes, but they are now so routine that it is hard not to see them as a new and troubling trend in leadership style.
There is enough blame to go around the Pacific Rim, starting with the United States. The lone superpower’s high-handed treatment of others is nothing new and requires little extra description here. Yet U.S. President George W. Bush has elevated this practice to a new level. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” speech carelessly triggered concerns in the region that North Korea was next on the list for regime change after Iraq. Bush’s personal insults of Kim Jong Il (i.e. “dwarf” and “tyrant”) also have set a standard for schoolyard rhetoric throughout the region.
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has smugly advised Bush to tone down his name calling. Not bad advice, perhaps, but ironic given the South Korean president’s own histrionic outbursts toward allies and neighboring nations.
Bypassing consultation with the professionals in his Foreign Ministry, Roh several months ago unleashed a bizarre diatribe against Japan, warning of a “diplomatic war” over historical disputes. Even more disturbing is Roh’s open call for South Korea to become a strategic “balancer” between Japan and the United States on one hand and North Korea and China on the other. Needless to say, the comment did not go down well among the “with us or against us” crowd in Washington.
Reckless rhetoric is not the only cause of acrimony in Northeast Asia. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to visit Yasukuni Shrine as if he were oblivious to the political consequences of memorializing Class-A war criminals. The truth is that his visits to the shrine have severely aggravated relations with Beijing and Seoul and have hampered Japan’s progress toward reconciling its wartime legacy. As if not damaging enough, the Yasukuni controversy only steepens the uphill battle for Japan to attain a permanent U.N. Security Council seat.
Lest China take the high road on the issue, Hu Jintao and the leadership in Beijing have felt compelled to retaliate with their own petty shots. Beijing has singled out Koizumi as persona non grata, making it clear that it is willing to receive any visiting Japanese politician but the prime minister. Since Koizumi has not visited China, Beijing set up another way to get at the prime minister. In May, Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi went to Japan to meet with top-level officials, including Koizumi. On the day she was to meet the prime minister, however, Wu abruptly canceled and returned to China citing official business back home.
Despite shattering diplomatic relations with neighbors, this kind of behavior plays well at home, where standing up to foreign rivals wins great public approval. Lashing out at Japan, for instance, is a time-honored practice of boosting support for the government in China and South Korea. In Japan, as well, even moderates approve of Koizumi continuing to visit Yasukuni Shrine so as not to back down to foreign pressure.
All this posturing, though, seems to come from another alarming source. There appears to be a prevailing sense of self-importance among the regional nations, as if each country believes it has the prerogative to make irresponsible comments and provoke others with impunity.
Here Roh Moo Hyun’s “balancer” statement comes to mind. Aside from undercutting the U.S.-Korea alliance, the statement shows a kind of hubris that seems to be afflicting the Blue House of late. Sure, South Korea deserves to be taken more seriously as a rising economic power and increasingly vibrant democracy. But South Korea is not yet a country that has the clout to be the arbiter of great power rivalries in the region. And if Roh aspires to take on such a role he is grossly overestimating his nation’s place in the world.
Similar haughtiness is, again, seen in Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. I am convinced that what really irks China about the visits is not, per se, that the prime minister is paying homage to war criminals. Rather, what upsets Beijing most is the fact that Koizumi simply could not care less about how Yasukuni affects Chinese sensitivities. And what is ultimately insulting to the Chinese is that Koizumi is so nonplussed by China’s vociferous protests that he does not even hesitate to continue his visits–no wonder Beijing demonizes Koizumi.
Fortunately, all these snubs and provocations have not spun out of control yet and led to a real conflict in the region. Such restraint probably has less to do with enlightened leadership in the region’s capitals and more to do with the fact that there are other concerns that keep public attention from focusing entirely on sniping with neighbors. But in quieter times, with no distractions such as North Korea to keep the nations of the region engaged with each other, an exchange of top-level insults could rapidly get out of hand. That is perhaps another reason why we should all hope the six-party talks continue.
Weston Konishi is program director at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.

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