Economic Stability (in East Asia)

By Tanaka, Akihiko | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Economic Stability (in East Asia)


Tanaka, Akihiko, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Any attempt to achieve international security in East Asia in the first few decades of the coming century should take as a basic premise the inevitability of significant change. Peace and stability are, in general, what most nations seek in their security policy. However, stability in any viable security policy should be understood as dynamic stability, not static stability. Rigid attempts to preserve East Asia status quo will prove unworkable, and may do more harm than good. The goal of security policy in East Asia is peaceful change, not the indefinite preservation of the status quo. The keys to maintaining dynamic stability in a region full of possible changes are discussed.

Text:

Headnote:

Cooperative Strategies for Averting Crisis in East Asia

The status quo is not sustainable in East Asia. North Korea will not stay the same in the decades to come. It may not launch a war against South Korea, and its regime may not collapse, but it seems almost certain that radical changes will eventually take place in Pyongyang or in its relations with the South. China, too, will experience significant change economically, socially, and politically. Beijing's relations with Taipei will never be static. Russia's approach to East Asia, and even its relevance to the region, will depend on its entirely unpredictable domestic politics and the viability of its economy. The democracies in the region-Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan-will have new leaders, leaders not necessarily of the post-World War II, Cold War mold. And the United States' approach to the region may vary as well. In sum, changes are inevitable in East Asia.

Any attempt to achieve international security in the region in the first few decades of the coming century should take as a basic premise the inevitability of significant change. Peace and stability are, in general, what most nations seek in their security policy. However, "stability" in any viable security policy should be understood as "dynamic stability," not "static stability." Rigid attempts to preserve the East Asian status quo will prove unworkable, and may do more harm than good. The goal of security policy in East Asia is peaceful change, not the indefinite preservation of the status quo.

Hard Landing, Soft Landing

The most obvious place where the preservation of the status quo is impossible is North Korea. Many predictions of imminent collapse of the Kim Jong II regime have proven wrong. Five years have already passed since the death of North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim II Sung. The successor government of Kim Jong II has survived large-scale floods, drought, and horrendous famines. It has shown tremendous resilience to internal economic and social dislocations, as well as adroitness in bargaining with the United States, South Korea, and other countries. North Korea's record, then, might seem to suggest that collapse is not inevitable. But a "soft landing," or the gradual change of the North Korean regime so that it can co-exist peacefully with South Korea and its other neighbors, is possible only if the North Korean government changes its policies substantially. As long as North Korea maintains its extreme isolation from the world community while pursuing what some observers have called "militant mendicancy," a "hard landing" or "crash landing" seems always around the corner. The surrounding countries cannot tolerate North Korea's militant mendicancy forever.

To the extent that a hard landing is undesirable on the Korean peninsula, the policy of the United States, Japan, and South Korea should be targeted to entice changes in North Korea that are consistent with peaceful resolution of tensions. In fact, it is unrealistic to believe that we can somehow freeze the conditions in North Korea. Catastrophic famines have already loosened the regimented social fabric in North Korea; the traditional mechanism of totalitarian distribution has been shattered and replaced by emerging informal market systems.

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