With Japan distracted by frets over security and South Korea in political turmoil, North Koreas missile development programmes advance unchecked
Political turmoil in South Korea, where President Park Geun-hye is facing noisy calls for her impeachment, comes at a particularly sensitive moment for security in east Asia, where North Koreas menacing nuclear weapons and missile development programmes are advancing unchecked.
The rogue regime in Pyongyang led by the youthful despot, Kim Jong-un, conducted another illegal rocket exam shortly before the US presidential election on 8 November.
While reportedly unsuccessful, it was the regimes fifth ballistic missile firingin two months, and followed the work of its fifth and biggest nuclear test explosion in September. South Koreas army chiefs reacted angrily, indicating they were ready to hit back.
Our military strongly condemns North Korea for continuously conducting illegal provocative acts and are thoroughly prepared for any possibility of additional provocation, an official statement said.
But concern is grow that, at this critical juncture, South Koreas foremost ally is at best distracted, or at worst, may not longer be reliable.
Like their equivalents in Japan, South Koreas leaders have been un-nerved by statements by Donald Trump, US president-elect, that the two countries should pay more for their own defence.
South Korea pays about $860 m a year towards the cost of stationing 28,000 American troops. Under a bilateral security treaty, Japan, where 50,000 US personnel are based, pays about$ 2bn a year.
Like some kind of mafia chieftain operating a protection racket, Trump appears to be demanding fund with menaces.
Trump also suggested at one point in the presidential campaign that South Korea and Japan acquire their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea. This idea runs directly contrary to years of global counter-proliferation endeavors. It is also deeply offensive to Japanese people, the only victims to date of a nuclear attack.
What Trump may do, in practice, about North Korea is unknown. But the Obama administration is not waiting to see. Earlier this month, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, pledged to deploy a defensive missile system known as Thaad( terminal high altitude region defense) in South Korea as soon as possible.
Thaad is designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. Japan is upping its game, too. Earlier this year Tokyo said it was planning to acquire a wider range of ship-borne interceptors, upgrading two of its maritime self-defence forces six Aegis frigates and constructing two more. It may also deploys the Thaad system.
Unsurprisingly, North Korea has condemned these developments but so, too, has China. It says the anti-missile systems will disturb the regional balance of power and could be used to undermine its own defenses. Russia has built similar objectionsregarding Nato missile deployments in Poland, and has responded in kind in Kaliningrad.
Chinas displeasure may stoke wider tensions with the US and the various regional allies. Washington has been critical of Beijings failure to rein in North Korea. Although China has supported UN sanctions against Pyongyang and condemned its nuclear explosions, it has not applied its own unique economic leverage to construct Kim back off.
It is likely that Xi Jinping, Chinas president, views the North Korean conundrum in the broader context of his efforts to thwart Obamas so-called pivotto Asia and assert Chinese regional dominance at US expense.
One front in this intensifying war for power and influence is the South China Sea, where China is building military bases on disputed islands despite a UN court ruling that its activities are illegal. Another potential flashpoint is Taiwan. Xi is squeezing the islands newly-elected president whom he suspects of pursuing a pro-independence agenda.
China is also challenging Japan is a separate island dispute in the East China Sea. Shinzo Abe, Japans conservative “ministers ” who is frequently assailed by official Chinese media, last week became the first foreign leader to satisfy Trump. Abe wanted to gauge the election conquerors aims in east Asia. He declared afterwards that Trump could be trusted.
But Abes verdict will not prevent supporters of moves to re-interpret the post-war pacifist constitution and expand Japans independent defence capabilities from using current tensions with China and North Korea, and continuing doubts about Trump, to justify accelerated Japanese rearmament.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who is tipped as a possible successor to Abe, suggested on Monday it was not unreasonable for Trump to want Tokyo to do more to render the US-Japan alliance guys more efficient. In the future, this structure should change, he said. In Japans cautious political parlance, that amounts to a call to arms.
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