Dueling Dynasties Roil Asia

BY Michael D. Mosettig  December 14, 2012 at 2:31 PM EDT


Former Prime Minister and leader of Japan’s main opposition Liberal Democratic Party Shinzo Abe gives a campaign speech on Dec. 13 in Osaka, Japan. Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images.

The politics of China, Japan and the two Koreas are turning into a combustible mix of voter frustration, nationalism and dynastic rule with an occasional rocket thrown in for good measure.

Sunday in Japan and Wednesday in South Korea, voters seem poised to put into power new leaders who hail from old political families. China just installed Xi Jinping, a “princeling,” son of a revolutionary leader, as its next president in a selection process managed by the top ranks of the Communist Party. And with Tuesday’s rocket launch, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has shown again that his third-generation family dictatorship is ready to defy the world.

These leaders may owe their office as much to lineage as to achievement, but that is their only common bond as north Asia churns in a new tide of rising nationalism. And for the Obama administration in Washington, the elections in Japan and South Korea could foreshadow new tensions between old allies that will further complicate relations with China and the triangular and quadrangular diplomacy among them all.

On Sunday, Japanese voters will choose members of the lower house of the Diet (parliament), and polls anticipate a strong showing by Shinzo Abe, and his Liberal Democratic Party. Abe, whose grandfather served in Tojo’s wartime cabinet and later became Prime Minister, has vowed a stronger Japanese response in the dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Abe, who briefly served as prime minister in 2006, also has vowed to amend Japan’s pacifist post-World War II constitution and strengthen defense ties with the United States.

The suspense is not that the Liberal Democrats will return to power after a five-year exile, but whether they can govern alone or will be forced into a coalition with the even more nationalistic Japan Restoration Party. That party is an alliance of two Japanese nationalists: the Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, a strong economic and social conservative, and the Governor of Tokyo, Shintara Ishihara, an avowed nationalist. It was Ishihara’s announced bid to buy and occupy the disputed islands that pushed the current Japanese government to asserting its control over them, which in turn provoked an outraged response from Beijing, anti-Japanese riots and a near collapse in trade and investment between Asia’s two biggest economies.

While the rhetoric has drawn attention in Washington (where diminished interest in Japan is reflected in a paucity of think tank sessions about that country, about one to 50 compared with those on China), analysts say Japanese voters are focused on domestic issues. Michael Green, a former Bush administration National Security Council staffer, told a recent Heritage Foundation meeting that Japan has developed a pattern of voting out incumbent administrations by big margins, but then quickly turning on the new government if it fails to meet expectations. Stimson Center analyst Yuki Tatsumi, also just back from Japan, said the country is more inward-looking than ever, preoccupied with slow growth, taxes and massive national debt. Politicians employing nationalist rhetoric “are just tapping into frustration in general.”

But Abe’s nationalist rhetoric does not only apply to China. He has criticized a 1993 statement by the Japanese government expressing remorse for Japan’s enslavement of Korean “comfort women” during the war and Japan’s decades of colonial rule of the peninsula. Abe also has suggested he will visit a Japanese shrine that Koreans and Chinese say honors war criminals.

Anti-Japanese sentiments simmer barely beneath the surface in South Korea, and boiled over most recently when public pressure forced President Lee Myung-bak to withdraw from an intelligence-sharing deal with Tokyo. That seemed to be the final nail in the political coffin for Lee’s conservative coalition, but more leftist groups seem to have failed to coalesce, and two weeks ahead of the elections for both president and a new parliament, conservative candidate Park Geun-Hye is holding a lead in a contest mainly fought on domestic economic issues.

Park is the daughter of one of South Korea’s last dictators, Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979. Given the low standing of the ruling party, its poll ratings in the teens, and continued attacks on her father’s rule, Park’s success is quite the surprise. But as David Pilling, wrote in the Financial Times, she has walked a fine line between repudiating her father’s crackdown on democracy advocates without upsetting Korean reverence for familial piety. She may well be the first national leader since Tsarist Russia or Elizabethan England to take power after both her parents were assassinated, her mother in a botched North Korean attack on her father and then her father years later by an aide.

Both Park and her major liberal opponent Moon Jae-in have criticized the Lee government’s refusal to deal with North Korea until it renounces nuclear weapons. As Mansfield Center analyst Gordon Flake said, many South Koreans feel the policy has not produced any results while cutting off the limited contacts between north and south initiated by liberal governments in Seoul in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But Flake added, Park’s conservatives could get a boost from the North’s rocket test, reminding many South Koreans why they distrust the government in Pyongyang even as they crave more personal contact.

In any event, the electorate and polls in South Korea are notoriously volatile, and Park’s narrow lead could easily vanish in the days remaining before the election.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, will be watching wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he’ll write dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.