Historic Markers in Asia

Mark the day. On Jan. 19, a Japanese convoy of 30 soldiers entered Iraq, the first of 1,000 such troops to be sent, and Japan's first deployment into a combat area since World War II.

Ah, but also mark Jan. 17.

That's the day the US said it will move 7,000 military personnel out of downtown Seoul, farther south and out of range of North Korean artillery. The capital, as one newspaper headline noted, will be "Empty of Foreign Troops for the First Time Since 1882."

The Iraq war, and indeed the war on terrorism, has shifted the power balance in northeast Asia, helping to partially liberate South Korea and Japan from strictures laid down after past wars. Both will benefit by becoming more "normal" nations.

In South Korea, the US wants its troops to be more flexible in the war on terrorism, and also prevent any more local "incidents" that so offend Seoul residents. But the move also pushes South Korea to recognize that it cannot rely on a US shield forever and must be less passive in seeking changes in North Korea. The US now has a bigger interest than just protecting its ally and wants to prevent North Korea from exporting nuclear weapons or putting them on missiles.

For Japan, the troop deployment in Iraq - technically a humanitarian mission but one that's still in harm's way - brings the nation a step closer to rewriting its pacifist, postwar Constitution. Despite deep-seated domestic opposition, conservatives within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have sought such a change since Japan sat out the 1991 Gulf War.

While the US is likely to provide most of Japan's external defense for years, expansion of Japan's forces overseas - especially for Iraq-like conflicts not approved by the United Nations - helps Japan take on more of a mantle of leadership within Asia. That will help the US and restrain China's ambitions in the region. Japan's military is already well-equipped but lacks real-world experience.

Still, Japan needs to calm the fears of Asian nations that it won't repeat its past aggression. While its leaders, including the emperor, have apologized, they need to make sure Japanese students are taught more about Imperial Japan's atrocities. Only then can the nation be treated as "normal."

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