A Boost for Diplomacy in Asia?

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Leave it to Kim Jong Il to try to spoil a party he wasn't invited to. The reclusive North Korean leader's decision to test a nuclear device Monday morning may well have been timed to disrupt two landmark summit meetings between new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterparts in Beijing and Seoul. The test reportedly occurred as Abe was flying over the Korean peninsula, on his way from Beijing, where he spent Sunday, to Seoul. Yet in the short term, Pyongyang's provocation may have actually served to smooth the summits, giving the three estranged countries something they could all agree on: the need to deal with a nuclear North Korea.

At a press conference in Seoul Monday evening, Abe said that the tests had dominated his talks with President Roh Muh Hyun of South Korea, and told reporters: "It is a serious threat not only for Japan, South Korea and neighboring countries' regional security, but also a threat to international peace." That's the case as well for China and Japan, normally wary rivals at best. "A nuclear test brings China and Japan closer together tactically," says Malcolm Cook, program director for Asia and the Pacific at the Lowy Institute of International Studies in Sydney. "I don't think too much else would do that."

That the Beijing and Seoul summits happened at all was a surprise. A Japanese leader had not visited Beijing in five years and Seoul in more than a year, in part due to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Japanese war criminals along with 2.5 million war dead. The diplomatic deep freeze was worsened by rising nationalism in both South Korea and China, which culminated with violent anti-Japanese demonstrations throughout China in the spring of 2005. When Koizumi, in his last major act as Prime Minister, went to Yasukuni in August on the 61st anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, the three major powers of Northeast Asia were barely speaking to each other. The expected election of Abe, considered even more conservative than Koizumi, seemed only to promise more deterioration.

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