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A New Unknown in the Power Equation for Northeast Asia

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - The United States has good reason to be concerned at the success so far of the charm offensive launched by Kim Jong Il at his summit conference last week with President Kim Dae Jung. There are long-term implications for the balance of power in Northeast Asia, and hence for Southeast Asia as well.

The situation is being watched with interest and a degree of concern by other Asian nations which publicly have joined the chorus of welcome for the apparent progress toward peace on the peninsula.

Not only has the Northern despot transformed, at least temporarily, his image in the world and among Koreans. He has managed to sideline the United States, for 47 years the most important player on the peninsula, and highlighted the roleof China as lead interlocutor.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is visiting Beijing and Seoul this week, will doubtless want to ensure that Kim Dae Jung remains mindful of the continued importance of the U.S. military presence. In both capitals, the United States will underline its concern with strategic arms issues, particularly missile sales, to which it attaches more importance thando the South Koreans.

However, with Korean nationalism in full flood, washing away years of North-South bitterness, Washington needs to tread softly so as not to play into the North's hands by giving the impression that division of Korea and its own military presence are desirable.

Pan-Korean brotherly emotions will eventually come up against the harsher realities of the Koreas - the price that the South will have to pay for the family reunions for which it yearns, and the unwillingness of Kim Jong Il to make significant changes in the system of oppression which alone ensures the hold that he and the Communist Party have over the North.

It remains to be seen whether it is possible for Kim Jong Il to square good relations with the South with the continuation ofa regime that is so detrimentalto its subjects.

Commerce may be a sufficient bond, offering business opportunities to the South and improving the economic lot of the North.

But even if cooperation proves an illusion, recent events may have removed what little risk there still was of open war.

China is out to show that its influence over both Koreas guarantees Korean peace, more than the U.S. trip-wire presence. Meanwhile Pyongyang will try to tempt the South into believing that the U.S. presence is the major impediment to enhanced North-South cooperation.

And Japan, despite its deep misgivings about the North, will be tempted to offer large sums to Pyongyang so as to bea player on a peninsula whereit has so long competed with China for influence.

The truth is that the post-1953 impasse in Korea had become comforting to most of the players despite the nuclear poker that Pyongyang played in the recent past. That was simpler to counter than the emotional issue of Korean ethnic (not political) unity, which Kim Jong Il is now playing up. The region is moving into an era which may be more hopeful for North Koreans but introduces new unknowns for everyone else.

The U.S.-Korean relationship has long been a cornerstone of regional stability, and is particularly important for Japan. But now that the peninsula impasse appears to have been broken by the summit, new elements are in play in addition to China's enhanced role.

The Russians are seeking to be active participants again, the summit handily coinciding with President Vladimir Putin's drive to rebuild relations with neighbors. China will use its Korean position to put further pressure on Taiwan. Japan will have to consider whether regional changes suggest that it should further strengthen its bilateral ties with the United States or plan ahead to a day when it will have to rely on its own power, or regional alliances, rather than the U.S. umbrella.

Meanwhile, the growth of regional trade is continuing to reduce the relative economic clout of the United States, despite America's remarkable decade of economic expansion.

In short, Northeast Asia may be less dangerous but it is also now less predictable. Those who prefer the status quo, beware.