Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Regional detente cannot dispel Asian insecurity

By Karl Grobe

FRANKFURT (DPA): The nations of Asia have not forgotten their history, but the landmark events which dominate their memories are quite different from those recalled by citizens of Europe or the United States.

On Tuesday, Japan recalled the end of the World War II while both halves of the Korean peninsula marked their day of national liberation (from Japan) with celebrations which gave rise to hope as well as bitterness. India and Pakistan, meanwhile, needed little reminding of the independence and partitioning of the sub- continent. To westerners, these events may represent nothing more than local fixations in a news world dominated by North America and Europe, but they are ever-present in the mindset of the respective Asian nations.

Fifty-five years ago on Tuesday, Japan was forced to concede its first -- and utter -- defeat after a half-century of imperial expansion. Its cities were burning, two of them -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- having being obliterated by atom bombs days before capitulation in an operation whose chief objective may well have been to demonstrate U.S. military superiority to the Soviet Union. The island state was guided onto the "straight" path of democracy and peaceful economic regeneration, its imperial ambitions consigned forever to the historical past.

This turn-around still troubles some people in Japan, although they are more likely to be have even more trouble with what went before it. The events of the past still rankle with Japan's neighbors, who have watched with suspicion as Japan has transformed itself into the second-largest economic power in the world and developed new ambitions to match its lofty status.

The same day saw Korea celebrate its release from the colonial bondage Japan had forced on it 40 years before World War II. Celebrations marking this liberation are tinged with bitterness, borne of the knowledge that independence was to prove nothing more than a staging post on the way to a state of two-fold slavery. North Korean Stalinism has survived to the present day while the military dictatorship which ruled the south has only recently been replaced by a democratically elected government.

Those who claim political developments in the northern Democratic People's Republic were inevitable, given the influence of Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin, may not be far wrong. However, it is quite plausible that the southern Republic of Korea could well have steered a different course had it not been for the agents of the U.S. policy of occupation.

Poorly informed and lacking common sense, these people committed themselves irrevocably to one extreme solution, preferring the support of Japanese collaborators to the country's social and liberal forces, whose movement of national resistance they mistook for communism.

The process of emancipation in Korea has been a painful one but it has now created the conditions for a double liberation from the captivity of a Cold War which reached its hottest in the troubled peninsula.

On Tuesday -- surely no-one can have overseen the symbolic value of the date -- 200 family members were reunited after enduring 55 years of separation and silence. And for the first time in four years, both countries reopened the liaison office on their mutual border and a hotline has been set up linking the ministries of defense in north and south.

A railway joining the two Koreas is due to be reopened at the next possible opportunity and the historical meeting of the two Korean leaders at the June summit in Pjongjang should soon be followed by another in Seoul.

The icy atmosphere of confrontation is gradually melting, driven to some extent by North Korea's economic woes. More significant has been the impetus provided by the "sunshine politics" of South Korea, although the main motivation for the current Korean detente is the mutual realization of the risks involved in living in a permanent state of near-crisis.

The threat hanging over the region is yet to be dispelled. Observers' recent astonishment over an alleged offer on the part of the North's Kim Jong-il and the government's subsequent dismissal of the offer as a joke is indicative of the inscrutable nature of North Korean politics.

Kim had intimated to Vladimir Putin he would be willing to do without missile launchers in return for access to space technology. The deal became the subject of serious debate at the G8 summit in Okinawa. Now Kim is claiming Putin simply misunderstood a joke. The North Korean delegation, including an unusually high number of influential officials, has fueled the conjecture.

Moreover, more than 50 years of political schism have left several other points of contention; these need to be resolved if they are not to pose a threat to regional stability should the current neighborly climate take a change for the worse.

A further strain on inter-Asian relations stems from Japan and its historical interaction with its less powerful neighbors. Calls are growing louder for the economic giant to both atone morally and compensate financially for the forced prostitution and slave labour practices of its imperial past. Nothing has been forgotten -- the collective Asian memory remains undimmed -- nevertheless the potential for progress in the region is great.

There are no guarantees of security. The history of Indo- Pakistani relations following independence from the British is a warning to all of Asia. The colonists' policy of divide and rule gave birth to partition, which was to sow the seed of seemingly irreconcilable enmity in the Indian and Pakistani collective consciousness, a process which has since been manipulated by populist forces. The nations currently fighting over Kashmir could learn a great deal from Korea. In fact, they have no other choice.