The New Face of Northeast Asia

RUMBLINGS IN THE EAST

Northeast Asia, specialists have long argued, is among the most dangerous places on earth. Only there are the world's three principal nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, and China) and the two largest economic powers (the United States and Japan) still politically and geographically engaged -- their interests entwined in a volatile arc surrounding Japan. It was in that region that three years of bitter Korean conflict half a century ago shaped the Cold War for two generations. As other global hot spots moved fitfully toward peace, Korea remained locked in conflict. To this day, Northeast Asia lacks a regional security framework analogous to NATO or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and there is still no peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula, where more than a million troops from opposing sides remain deployed within miles of each other.

Yet when Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Jong Il of the North met on the tarmac at Pyongyang last June 13, the region's past and present tensions seemed to be giving way to the promise of future cooperation. The remarkably positive chemistry of the initial meetings produced tangible results. Within little more than two months, North and South Korea had agreed to rebuild roads and railways across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), resolved to re-establish a liaison office in Panmunjom (a village in the DMZ used as a neutral setting for international discussions), and completed an emotional series of visits between family members who had been separated for nearly 50 years. Soon afterward, their athletes marched under a common flag at the Sydney Olympics.

These initiatives marked a significant shift in regional diplomacy. For the first time since World War II, Seoul and Pyongyang -- rather than Washington, Moscow, or Beijing -- were driving events. The two Koreas sensed that they were on center stage and relished their new place in the sun.

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