NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
SCOTT SNYDER: Beginning with North Korea just a year ago, China last month, Japan this past Sunday, and now South Korea just yesterday, there's new leadership in Northeast Asia - vitally important, as it includes three of the world's major economies, a brutal dictatorship armed with nuclear weapons and more than a few potential flashpoints.
CONAN: Scott Snyder joins us now from a studio at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, where he's a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program for U.S.-Korea policy. Good to have you with us today.
SNYDER: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And let's begin in Seoul and an historical election yesterday of its first female president.
SNYDER: That's right. South Korea has its first woman president, Park Geun-hye. She is well-known to Koreans, because she is the daughter of the former president, authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee. And she is, I think, such still deal with some very difficult challenges emerging in Korea's - South Korea's neighborhood.
CONAN: And she is - her party, center-right, thought to be pretty similar to her predecessor. That's not quite the case in Japan, where Shinzo Abe's second term as prime minister, well, he's considerably to the right of his predecessor.
SNYDER: Yeah. It's interesting. In Japan, it's the same prime minister that was in place six years ago, but the political environment, I think, has shifted in some dramatic ways. And so I think one of the interesting aspects of the Japanese situation is that the LDP has returned to power. The Liberal Democratic Party has returned to power. But now they have a party that is to the right of them.
CONAN: And so we talk about those two states. And, of course, the other major player, the biggest in the region, China, where Xi Jinping took command just last month, formally.
SNYDER: That's right. I think we're still waiting to see how China's foreign policy priorities are really going to develop under Xi. The process seems to be moving slowly, and it's not necessarily terribly transparent at this point. We know there are new top leaders in the room, but it's just not clear exactly how they're making decisions or whether they're going to change much in terms of China's overall priorities.
CONAN: And transparency's a problem in Beijing. It's positively - well, murky is too easy a word for what's going on in Pyongyang.
SNYDER: It's absolutely true that one of the most complicated and interesting questions is what we don't know about the North Korean leadership situation. They control, generally speaking, what we see. We know that there have been significant changes within the top military leadership. It appears to be part of a consolidation process under this new leader, Kim Jong Un. But you can't discount the possibility that there could be backlash.
CONAN: And many asked about some of the things that we know some of this new leadership has done thus far. And we'll begin with North Korea, where Kim Jong Un has been in power this past year, since his father past away. He's the third of his family, that dynasty, to rule in North Korea. And there was finally success - I guess mixed success, but mostly success - in the launch of a missile that put a satellite into orbit. Of course, the missile is also a - it could be an intercontinental ballistic missile. What does that portend about North Korea? And what does it say about their agent?
SNYDER: Well, so far, it suggests that North Korea is going to continue to be the number one security challenge for an increasingly divided region, and, in fact, that the North Korean security challenge could be becoming more difficult, both as a matter of trying to deal with North Korea, and as an issue that requires cooperation among all of the country's in Northeast Asia in order to be able to have a hope of managing it in a stable way.
CONAN: North Korea is also a moral challenge for the new leader in South Korea.
SNYDER: Yes. It's - there's a sovereignty aspect to that long-standing confrontation. You know, both sides have been pitied against each other for a long time. The new leader, Park Geun-hye, has made it clear - has been quite explicit actually about naming human rights as an issue that would have to be dealt with in North Korea. But she's also reaching out a hand and is likely to offer opportunities for dialogue with North Korea as a way of stabilizing the inter-Korean security relationship.
CONAN: Stabilizing that relationship means, of course, leaving all those millions of people in North Korea in, well, dire conditions.
SNYDER: Well, that's true in the sense that Park is not pursuing the alternative of total confrontation. At the same time, you know, the one thing that I think seems to be clearer up to now is that none of the countries have been willing to risk that sort of military confrontation in order to drive external change in North Korea.
CONAN: Has China, the most influential outside force in North Korea, has China handled the new leader more warmly or more distantly than his father?
SNYDER: Well, the Chinese leadership has continued to see dialogue first with Kim Jong Un. They've had two publicly announced meetings with him. One of them came right in advance of North Korea's announcement that it was going to pursue a satellite launch. We don't know whether that subject was discussed in China. But, you know, the indicator suggests that China is still trying to figure out if there is a way that it can influence the situation in North Korea without taking measures that would enhance instability. The Chinese priority is basically to maintain stability in North Korea.
CONAN: And so it was - it's willing to prop up that terrible regime if it will prevent that regime's collapse and the horrible situation that might ensue.
SNYDER: I think it's certainly the case that if you're, you know, looking at why North Korea still is there in the middle of this otherwise prosperous region, the hand of China is the critical explainer for why North Korea is still able to survive.
CONAN: Xi Jinping has been in power just a brief time in Beijing, but in that time, we have seen increased pressure on the Senkaku Islands. These are the disputed islands unoccupied, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Japan has controlled them for, what, 100 years. China claims them as well. There had been confrontations in the past where patrol boats and fishing boats had exchanged even water canon spray. But this time, a Chinese patrol craft flew over the islands, and that's a different situation.
SNYDER: That's right. I think the Senkakus is rising as one of the issues of greatest concern as we look at each nation's security. It's really related to, I think, the Chinese enhanced effort to try to establish some form of claim to administrative control over a feature that they don't - they claim ownership of, but the Japanese really are the ones who have administrative control over the island at this point.
CONAN: And has the United States says this is Japanese territory or this is Chinese territory?
SNYDER: Well, the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty claim. But it is committed to the defense of territories that are under Japan's administrative control.
CONAN: And this has been an issue of great nationalist fervor in both Japan and China.
SNYDER: Yes. The islands have become a symbol where the dual nationalisms are coming into direct confrontation with each other.
CONAN: And as you mentioned, there is a party now to the right of the LDP in Japan, and they make it even more of an issue.
SNYDER: That's right. Really, this whole situation with the Senkakus, I think, began to take on a more serious coloring as a result of the former Tokyo mayor Ishihara's expression of desire to occupy or purchase - actually the purchase of the island from the former owners. And then subsequently, the Japanese government took ownership of the island.
CONAN: To prevent an even more provocative situation, but that was provocative for the Chinese.
SNYDER: It constitutes a change to the status quo that had prevailed for the previous three decades. And I think one of the results has been that there's been this increase in tensions and occasional conflicts between China and Japan.
CONAN: And there was also that - when that Chinese patrol craft flew over - what - a couple of weeks ago, the then-government of Japan was embarrassed because they didn't notice it until it was too late.
SNYDER: It's a very serious escalatory step because there's also a greater risk in terms of potential for accident or other unplanned escalation of the conflict.
CONAN: And as we saw with the American patrol plane went over Hainan Island all those many years ago, back in 2000, I guess.
SNYDER: That's right. 2001, I think.
CONAN: As you look at this new leadership, are we going to see something different? I mean, there are always vows of the party out of power, the LDP in Japan, for example, coming back in to power, vowing to reinvigorate the Japanese economy. Do they have a prospect for that? Do they have a plan for that? Is that something that Japanese people will come to expect or is there likely to be grave disappointment in a couple of years with them as there was with their predecessors?
SNYDER: Well, in the case of Japan, I think that it would - it might be seen as an advancement if the prime minister can simply hold his feet for over a year. We've seen a revolving leadership there for the past seven years, where the change in prime ministers, I think, has actually been a contributing factor to the inability, perhaps, to find effective policies. You know, one other aspect of this, I think, is interesting is that with all of these leadership changes, people thought perhaps that the deck in Northeast Asia was going to be reshuffled somehow. And ironically, it seems that we see more continuity than we do change, and we see more focus on the issues of the past or historical issues than we do opportunities for changing the paradigm in the future.
CONAN: Scott Snyder is the senior fellow for Korea studies and the director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And you mentioned that parade of prime ministers in Tokyo. Mr. Abe himself was a short-term prime minister as he got himself into some trouble on nationalist, among other issues. Is he likely to trim his sails back towards the center this time? He ran a pretty nationalist campaign.
SNYDER: Well, those specialists who have had direct contact with him suggested he's really a realist and a pragmatist. And that, in fact, last time when he was prime minister, he did curb some of those rhetorical impulses and, in fact, opened up kind of a new page in the relationship between Japan and China. Certainly, that sort of statesmanship is in great demand at this stage given the increasing tensions in the regional environment.
CONAN: And the - as his rule maybe ephemeral, we will have to see. China, the new leaders there can look forward to a decade, if history - recent history is any guide. I guess, we've seen two now transitions of power in China that were reasonably predictable. But as they look ahead, does that suggest caution? Does that suggest - what signs are you looking for, what indicators as to what they will do on the crucial issue, for example, of political reform?
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, you know, the - I think the complex aspect of the Chinese leadership transition is that Xi Jinping was elevated along with a group of six other men, who, with the exception of the prime minister, are likely to gone in five years. And so, you know, that's - it's hard to read the tea leaves, but it suggests that this is really a set of half measures that it's unlikely that Xi would necessarily be very bold in the first five years at a time when China arguably is facing an increasing internal social and political pressures.
CONAN: The expectations of a burgeoning middle class, that's one thing. On the other hand, the billions have been - many millions have been lifted out of poverty. Many millions remain.
SNYDER: Well, many millions have lifted out of poverty and many millions seemed to have been lifted into the pockets of the top leaders. And so that, I think, reporting of socioeconomic inequity and privilege is a source of corruption in the Communist Party that really has to be managed or dealt with in some decisive form by President Xi.
CONAN: And is there going to be realignment? And you look towards the new leadership in South Korea. The United States, of course, has had a longstanding security relationship with South Korea, going back to the war there in the early 1950s. And, of course, you mentioned the treaty with Japan and United States have been - had bases there since 1945. There - is there going to be any fundamental change in those relationships, do you think?
SNYDER: The change is not coming so much in the U.S.-Japan or in the U.S.-Korea alliance relationships at this stage. There are some rising tensions that have emerged in the South Korea-Japan relationship that present, I think, a challenge for U.S. policymakers. You know, one of the aspects of the U.S. pivot or rebalancing policy is that it suggests that we want allies to work together or horizontally with each other more actively.
But Korea and Japan are increasingly facing divisions over history issues and with a woman South Korean president and a Japanese prime minster, who has raised questions about some of the comfort women issues; it suggests that we've got potentially a rocky road ahead.
CONAN: Comfort women, the Korean women who were drafted, I guess, is too easy a word, sex slaves for Japanese occupation troops in Korea for many years.
SNYDER: That's correct.
CONAN: And the Japanese declined to acknowledge this at times, and it has been Mr. Abe from time to time who has declined to acknowledge Japanese war crimes during the Second World War.
SNYDER: Well, there's an active political debate in Japan over the question of whether the existing statements by Japan on this issue are going to stand up. And so a step toward a - or a step away from acknowledging some of these past historical issues would be an actually big setback, I think, for Japan and the region.
CONAN: Scott Snyder, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it. We'll look forward to seeing how this new leadership changes things.
SNYDER: Thanks for the chance to be here.
CONAN: Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and the director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with the annual Christmas Bird Count, and John Donvan will be here with you on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Have a happy holiday, everybody. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.