THE prospect that the Clinton administration may reduce United States military forces in Japan and South Korea has begun to overshadow diplomacy in the region.
In talks Japan held separately with both North and South Korea in recent days, the likelihood of a reduced US role in Asia loomed over almost every other issue.
At an informal summit, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and South Korean President Roh Tae Woo issued a statement Sunday to President-elect Clinton that the current US military and political presence in Asia is "indispensable." Both nations rely heavily on defense pacts with the US.
In contrast, talks aimed at normalizing ties between Japan and North Korea were abruptly cut off last week after Governor Clinton's election victory. Some analysts saw the cutoff by Pyongyang as a delaying action by the Communist regime to await Clinton's possible move on troop reductions in South Korea.
"North Korea decided to step back and wait until Clinton moves before it chooses a policy line," a South Korean official says. The normalization talks were the eighth to be held between Japan and North Korea since January 1991, with little progress made so far.
North Korea, accused of trying to make a nuclear bomb, might also be hoping that Clinton will soften US demands for inspection of the North's nuclear sites. "While the Bush administration concentrated only on the nuclear issue, Clinton will focus on both nuclear and human rights issues," says Katsumi Sato, president of Gendai Korea Institute in Tokyo.
Japan has been eager to emerge as a major player by improving ties to the two Koreas, despite its brutal 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula. The informal summit between President Roh and Prime Minister Miyazawa, in which thorny bilateral issues were set aside to focus on regional concerns, was designed to "demonstrate to their respective peoples that the two nations can get along," the South Korean official says.
Roh told Miyazawa that South Korea-Japan relations should be like those of France and Germany, with more informal contacts between leaders. But because of continued anti-Japanese sentiments among Koreans over Japan's occupation, Miyazawa did not respond positively to Roh's offer for the Japanese emperor to visit South Korea.
"The wounds [of the Japanese occupation] which at best may have only half healed, have instead gotten worse," wrote Kim Hak Joon, a Roh adviser, in a pre-summit article.