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Maritime Disputes Overshadow NE Asia Relations

Concerns about maritime clashes in Northeast Asian waters are increasing. Japan in 2012 faced escalating tensions both with China and South Korea over disputed islands. And the two Koreas, still technically at war, cannot agree on their western maritime border.

With new political leaders now in place across the region there is apprehension about how the countries will get along in 2013.

China is continuing to send its vessels into waters around Japanese-held islands. Beijing says the territory has been Chinese since “ancient times.”

South Korea, in its latest defense white paper, expresses a firm commitment to defending an island it holds that Japan claims. And Seoul is also re-asserting its enforcement of the Northern Limit Line, a Yellow Sea maritime border that Pyongyang does not recognize.

This comes as South Korean voters have selected a conservative, Park Geun-hye, to lead their country for the next five years.

And in another December election, Japanese voters chose to bring back hawkish Shinzo Abe as prime minister.

There are concerns that the leadership changes during the past year in Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo increase the chances of hostile actions.

But Eurasia Group senior adviser Jun Okumura, in Tokyo, cautions those elsewhere in Asia who believe the Japanese actually harken for a return to their country's era of military aggression.

“There is a certain populist sentiment, but it's not the kind of popular sentiment that China has or South Korea has or say even the United States has. It's more a sense of some surprise and some trepidation with the increasing presence, both perceived and real, that China is having around the East China Sea and its environs,” Okumura said.

Abe has announced his desire to proceed with changing Japan's pacifist constitution, imposed by the United States following the end of World War II. Article 9 prohibits Japan from having a normal military, it currently has “self defense forces”, or allowing its troops to fight alongside its allies, namely the United States.

Proponents argue the change is needed as Japan faces increasing threats from China, as well as North Korea.

This year in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, as a third-generation leader, secured his grip on power after the death, last December, of his father, Kim Jong Il.

The younger Kim is continuing in his father's footsteps, defying international sanctions on ballistic missile development.

North Korea's three-stage rocket launch in April failed to deploy a satellite into space. But another attempt in mid-December succeeded to the point of placing an object into orbit.

As a result, North Korea, early in 2013, will face further U.N. sanctions. But retired Japanese ambassador Kazuhiko Togo expresses a desire for a different approach.

“We have already exerted maximum policy in terms of exerting economic sanctions. So one measure is to continue. Because Japan's policy towards North Korea has been one of the harshest in the region I think, in balance, the next emphasis which we should implement is to try to find a way to get to the North Koreans and speak to them,” Togo said.

Some analysts predict Park in South Korea will resume some humanitarian aid to the North. Among those is Seoul National University associate professor of international relations Chun Chae-sung. But he cautions China actually holds the keys to opening the door to better inter-Korean relations.

“Because China is the most important partner to North Korea when they want to maintain its faltering economy. But China will cooperate with South Korea, and also with other East Asian countries, if we can suggest some long-term road map on how to deal with North Korea. So we know that China is the most important partner with the United States, obviously, to have success in pursuing our North Korean policy,” Chun said.

For the new leaders in both Tokyo and Seoul, their own economies are expected to be a top priority.

Abe wants Japan to print more money to lower the value of the yen and try to end chronic deflation after 15 years of essentially no economic growth.

In South Korea, as is the case with Japan, the new leader takes the helm of an export-dependent economy. Ms. Park confronts an economic slowdown while the income gap continues to widen. She has pledged to increase social welfare spending and create more high value jobs.

Outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak leaves a five-year legacy of failing to hit any of his major economic targets.

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