The year ahead in East Asia: North Korea nukes and Taiwan elections

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears eager to continue his nuclear agenda in 2016. Meanwhile, upcoming elections in Taiwan could rattle Taipei-Beijing relations.

Korean Central News Agency/Reuters
Analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown no signs of dropping his nuclear ambitions in 2016.

East Asia seems likely to continue as an economic dynamo in 2016, analysts say, but North Korea and Taiwan present a new set of challenges in the region.

The curving corridor between Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo represents more than a billion people in one of the most urbanized and educated regions on the planet. The region is competitive, high tech, increasingly integrated, and tourists from Japan and China now visit each other in record numbers.

This year Japan and China got past the symbolic 70th anniversary of World War II, and tensions between the two seem to have abated. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finished out the year with a historic apology for the treatment of Korean "comfort women" who served as sex slaves under imperial Japan in World War II, in a move widely applauded in the West as promoting peace.

Now, at the outset of 2016, the main Asian concerns, analysts say, are represented by North Korea and Taiwan.

North Korea remains isolated, poor, and a puzzle to other Asian nations, and its leader Kim Jong-un continues to pursue a nuclear policy and may have as many as 20 atomic devices.

Taiwan will hold elections on Jan. 16 that – if polls are correct – are likely to usher in a government that is far more pro-Taiwan than Beijing is used to, and could for the first time in 70 years oust the Nationalist Party entirely from power.

China has called Taiwan a “renegade province” for years. Yet while China has turned ever more authoritarian under President Xi Jinping, the island of Taiwan has become one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia.

The year ahead brings "complex changes," Beijing authorities said today in the first official Chinese comments on the elections. China and Taiwan face "new challenges," said Beijing spokesman on Taiwan relations Zhang Zhijun in a New Year's greeting to Taiwan's 23 million people, according to the Associated Press.

Here are two look-ahead snapshots:


Earlier this month, North Korea’s Mr. Kim appeared to be on the verge of a minor diplomatic coup. He sent his favorite pop band to perform in Beijing. The all-female Moranbong Band was to play a concert exclusively for Communist Party members at a large venue near the Forbidden City. Chinese talked about it as a kind of “ping pong diplomacy” – a breakthrough for Kim, who has not traveled to Beijing or anywhere else since taking power in 2012. This spring he cancelled his first trip as head of state to Vladimir Putin’s 70th World War II anniversary in Moscow.

Then, just before the Beijing concert, the band was quietly and abruptly sent home by Chinese authorities – by jet, not the usual train, as The New York Times points out.

The reason? Kim declared from Pyongyang that his regime had developed a hydrogen bomb capability.

Neither Washington nor Beijing believes this claim. Yet as Scott Snyder of the Council of Relations says, “To have Kim’s band playing in Beijing just as he is declaring an H-bomb appears to be a legitimization that China can’t accept. Once again we have failed diplomacy by Pyongyang.”

North Korea remains in a state of frozen desperation – poor and cut off from the rest of Asia by a policy whose main aim is to keep the Kim family dynasty in power.

The good news, says Mr. Snyder, is that Kim has shown signs of recognizing the need to improve the economy. The bad news is that the North Korean leader has yet to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

“This adds to North Korea’s volatility and fragility,” Snyder says. “To try and entertain economic reforms yet simultaneously pursue a nuclear program is forcing Kim into a crossroads. This unilateral dual policy is rejected by all of his neighbors. Yet he continues to pursue it. North Korea has a penchant for driving ahead even when out-of-bounds.”


Across the narrow straight from the Chinese province of Fujian lies Taiwan, where a figure almost the polar opposite of North Korea’s Kim may soon take the helm.

After losing elections four years ago, Tsai Ing-wen has worked quietly to carve out a distinct political identity for Taiwan without pushing China into aggravation and bellicosity. She is low-key and conciliatory.

As reported by The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month, Ms. Tsai:  

... is the super-achieving youngest of 11 children whose father, Tsai Jie-sheng, was a successful entrepreneur and investor. Her sprawling family mirrors Taiwan’s own complex society, with siblings scattered from Taiwan to California. The home was a lively one where she early learned about social diversity, and business and current affairs.

Taiwan has had an openly Taiwan-first president before. Yet if Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party can parlay a strong dissatisfaction with China and the China-friendly Nationalists in Taiwan into votes, the Taiwan legislature itself could for the first time rule the roost.

Then the question would become: How will China respond?

In November, as the size of Tsai’s lead became clearer, Mr. Xi met for the first time ever with a Taiwanese head of state. He met President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore for talks that remain undisclosed.

So far, Tsai and her political allies have stressed a China-Taiwan relationship based on a maturing and “rational” approach between the two. Tsai has strongly downplayed any talk of “independence.”

"I believe China will uphold a rational attitude to interact with the DPP," Tsai said during a televised debate with Eric Chu of the Nationalists, according to Reuters.

She said that political party rotation is part of Taiwan's democratic society. China's leaders should "recognize this is the reality of Taiwan's democratic way of life and give it certain respect." 

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