Thursday, December 2, 2010

Japan & Korea: Decades Of Geopolitical Musical Chairs

This is not the sound of silence. Via.

Up and down--one chair pulled and the music continues. The players are Japan and South Korea, playing for decades in an international arena with their neighbor who has had an amazing growth spurt, China, and their cantankerous cousin North Korea. The music is the never ending (and often dissonant) song of diplomacy.

If we chronicle Japan and Korea’s quandary from 1990s to the present, it has been a continuing game of musical chairs. 720 miles apart, Seoul and Tokyo have faced economic strife and regional security detriments. Although many of the crises were similar, the two countries chose different paths with different geopolitical and domestic consequences.  

South Korea, historical and regionally, has always been at the mercies of their neighbors and the international community. Currently they are rekindling their relationship with the U.S. and cooling to China since the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan. They faced many of the same economic, political and demographic problems Japan now faces. They made strong and bold reforms, created a robust economy, strengthened a vigorous and interactive democracy—all to enhance their geopolitical weight so they are no longer at the mercies of the world. Yet despite these accomplishments, they remain at an impasse with North Korea, where things have heated up of late.

Japan’s game change happened in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, ending the latter's near unbroken rule since World War II. This was celebrated as a major step in Japan’s democratic system, but has so far created risks in every level of Japanese life: political, bureaucratic, economic and public. The situation now threatens the efforts of Japanese leaders and their allies to promote economic recovery and ensure stability in the region.

On December 8, Japan Society welcomes Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s William Overholt to lead the hard-hitting discussion Japan & Korea: Domestic Reform & Geopolitical Shifts. Overholt is a one-time investment banker who has become a prominent Asian policy expert over the last few decades, planning studies at one time for the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State, National Security Council, and Council on International Economic Policy, as well as penning six books (most recently Asia, America and the Transformation of Geopolitics).

In the discussion, Overholt poses the question: can Japan revive without crisis amidst unstable internal power structures and with such alarming international security issues unfolding in East Asia? He also addresses Japan's importance for Asia and South Korea’s management of a deteriorating North Korea.

The lively and timely discussion is presided by Robert Fallon, a professor at Columbia Business School, who also serves on the boards of Japan Society and Korea Society. Chairs will be provided, and the music has already begun to play.


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