By Ana Marie Pamintuan
The Philippine Star
SEOUL – Last Sunday South Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone was packed with tourists.
It was the eve of the 62nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. There was some tension here after Korean forces undertook their biggest single-day live-fire military exercises with the United States last week, followed by a major three-day naval exercise in the Yellow Sea.
I arrived here last Thursday, as South Korea began a two-day military search-and-rescue drill with the US and Japan off the southern island of Jeju.
I thought our East-West Center group tour to the DMZ would be canceled or limited. But South Koreans went about business as usual even in November last year, when I also happened to be here on the day that Pyongyang bombed the fishing village on the South’s Yeonpyeong Island. Seoul went about business as usual at the time, and today the Korean capital isn’t going to worry over Pyongyang’s protests against the joint military exercises with the US.
At the DMZ, visitors including many school children peered through telescopes across the zone, and hiked down one of the tunnels dug by the North Koreans and discovered by the South. We watched a brief video presentation of the history of the Korean War: a lot of blood and gore, children wailing, and then how the DMZ has been transformed from the world’s most heavily mined area into an environmental sanctuary where birds, deer and other wildlife now thrive.
The video ended with the reason for the remembrance: South Korea will never allow another “fratricidal war” to occur again.
That resolve has been periodically tested by the North, with the attack on Yeonpyeong the worst provocation so far since the armistice dividing the two Koreas was signed in the border village of Panmunjom in 1953.
The DMZ has often been described as the last front in the cold war. Korea watchers are hoping that with reforms sweeping North Korea’s kindred spirit Myanmar, the winds of change may soon also blow across Pyongyang.
But these days there’s talk of a new cold war emerging, again with the DMZ as a front. This time South Korea and its ally the United States are being pitted against North Korea and its principal economic partner and supporter, China.
A new cold war could draw in other countries in the region, including the Philippines, which is already locked in a territorial dispute with China.
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China chairs the Six-Party Talks, which deals with security concerns arising from North Korea’s nuclear program. There are those who think Beijing isn’t doing enough to put pressure on Pyongyang to get serious with the talks.
“China has replaced Japan in becoming the biggest problem in the region when it comes to territorial disputes,” said Peter Beck, The Asia Foundation’s country representative for South Korea.
The San Francisco-based Asia Foundation is a non-profit, non-government organization that was once linked to the US Central Intelligence Agency, but which is now funded mostly by multilateral institutions and foreign aid arms including the US Agency for International Development.
Beck, who was part of a panel that discussed security issues in Northeast Asia last Sunday at the end of our three-day conference here, summed up Pyongyang’s attitude toward Seoul: “Give me more money. That’s really all North Korea wants from South Korea.”
He said North Korea at this time could be likened to “a 1938 Japan.” Older generations of Filipinos still remember the horrors of the war and the Japanese occupation.
This time, Japan is seen as part of a US-led security alliance in the region. Japan has so far abided by its post-war pacifist constitution, and Beck expressed pessimism that Tokyo would want to play a bigger security role in the region.
Both Japan and South Korea have used their post-war economic prosperity and military power with restraint. The two countries have instead worked in the past decades to win friends and act as responsible citizens of the world.
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The head of South Korea’s delegation to the Six-Party Talks, Ambassador Lim Sungnam, emphasized to us that Seoul is promoting trilateral cooperation not only among his country, the US and Japan but also among South Korea, Japan and China.
Lim also remains optimistic about the Six-Party Talks, saying, “I’d like to remind you that things are usually harder to make than to break.”
Chinese officials have dismissed speculation about a new cold war between their country and the US as so 20th century. The Chinese like to say they prefer to project soft power. But even for a China fan (and hilaw na Tsinoy) like me, this is becoming hard to believe with recent Chinese actions in Panatag Shoal.
It’s worse when an aggressive emerging power does not seem to be in full control. The buzz in the Tsinoy community is that when the Chinese foreign ministry agrees to a pullout of its boats from the lagoon in Panatag, the message fails to reach the Chinese military and civilian enforcement agencies. The disjointed response is likely to persist until October, when a new leadership takes over in Beijing.
By that time, China would have already lost a lot of neighborly goodwill generated by its recent efforts at openness and friendliness.
It’s too bad that much of the improvement in relations between the Philippines and China in the past three years, with credit going to former Ambassador to Manila Liu Jianchao, are now being undone by the standoff in Panatag.
The dispute has also fueled speculation on whether Washington will be a friend in need. So far we have seen US submarines surface in Subic Bay – unheard of since the shutdown of the US bases here – twice within a month, with the Americans insisting that the visits are just routine port calls.
US forces are reportedly leaving their shipping container camp in Zamboanga City within the year, but there could be new deployment in the West Philippine Sea.
Speculation about a new cold war persists because of China’s actions, and America’s new thrust, announced to the world, that it is shifting its focus from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific.
It is being helped by China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Countries spooked by the aggressiveness are being drawn closer to America, while still trying to maintain friendly and economic ties with China. Those strong economic ties could yet prove China right in dismissing talk about a new cold war.
That talk about soft power will be bolstered if China sees that global power derives its legitimacy from mutual respect, not fear or sheer military force.