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The United States has long styled itself a Pacific power. It established the model of counterinsurgency in the Philippines in 1899 and defeated the Japanese in World War II. It faced down the Chinese and the North Koreans to keep the Korean peninsula divided in 1950, and it armed the Taiwanese to the teeth. Today America maintains the most powerful military in the Pacific region, supported by a constellation of military bases, bilateral alliances and about 100,000 service personnel.
It has, however, reached the high-water mark of its Pacific presence and influence. The geopolitical map is about to be redrawn. Northeast Asia, the area of the world with the greatest concentration of economic and military power, is on the verge of a regional transformation. And the United States, still preoccupied with the Middle East and hobbled by a stalled and stagnating economy, will be the odd man out.
Elections will be part of the change. Next year, South Koreans, Russians and Taiwanese will all go to the polls. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party will also ratify its choice of a new leader to take over from President Hu Jintao. He will be the man expected to preside over the country’s rise from the number-two spot to the pinnacle of the global economy.
But here’s the real surprise in store for Washington. The catalyst of change may turn out to be the country in the region that has so far changed the least: North Korea. In 2012, the North Korean government has trumpeted to its people a promise to create kangsong taeguk, or an economically prosperous and militarily strong country. Pyongyang now has to deliver somehow on that promise—at a time of food shortages, overall economic stagnation and political uncertainty. This dream of 2012 is propelling the regime in Pyongyang to shift into diplomatic high gear, and that, in turn, is already creating enormous opportunities for key Pacific powers.
Washington, which has focused for years on North Korea’s small but developing nuclear arsenal, has barely been paying attention to the larger developments in Asia. Nor will Asia’s looming transformation be a hot topic in our own presidential election next year. We’ll be arguing about jobs, healthcare and whether the president is a socialist or his Republican challenger a nutcase. Aside from some ritual China-bashing, Asia will merit little mention.
President Obama, anxious about giving ammunition to his opponent, will be loath to fiddle with Asia policy, which is already on autopilot. So while others scramble to remake East Asia, the United States will be suffering from its own peculiar form of continental drift.
Pyongyang Turns on the Charm
On April 15, 1912, in an obscure spot in the Japanese empire, a baby was born to a Christian family proud of its Korean heritage. The 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and dynastic leader, is coming up next year. Ordinarily, such an event would be of little importance to anyone other than 24 million North Koreans and a scattering of Koreans elsewhere. But this centennial also marks the date by which the North Korean regime has promised to finally turn things around.
Despite its pretensions to self-reliance, Pyongyang has amply proven that it can only get by with a lot of help from its friends. Until recently, however, North Korea was not exactly playing well with others.