Players in place for a North Asian powder keg

In North Asia, after a clean sweep of leadership in the past year, sons and grandsons are playing out the conflicts of their ancestors.

Within quick succession, the three giants of northeast Asia have chosen new leaders. Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s heir apparent in November. Shinzo Abe has won a second shot at running Japan. And yesterday, South Koreans elected a new president. If you count Kim Jong-eun, who took over North Korea from his late father last year, that adds up to four new leaders in one of the tensest regions on the planet. The potential for diplomatic brinkmanship – or worse – is high.

As if to mark the possibility of more dangerous times ahead, Mr Kim, the baby-faced 29-year-old installed in Pyongyang, celebrated the regional carnival of elections, selections and dynastic successions the only way he knew how: he let of a long-range rocket. The next day, the Chinese military, now officially under the control of Mr Xi, sent out a surveillance aircraft in what Tokyo said was the first such violation of its airspace since 1958.

At the foot of Asia’s diplomatic garden lies the rotting carcass of unresolved history. Not only does the memory of colonialism and war lurk behind every confrontation. It is embodied in the very leaders now running their respective countries.

Mr Kim is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, revered founder of North Korea, whose cult of personality stems from his supposedly decisive role in liberating the peninsula from Japanese colonialists.

Mr Xi is the son of Xi Jinping, revolutionary hero of a Communist party whose legitimacy is anchored in its struggle to drive the Japanese out of China.

Mr Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who helped to run Japanese-occupied Manchuria. It is a potent family brew. Sons and grandsons are playing out the conflicts of their ancestors.

In South Korea, this triumvirate will be joined by Park Geun-hye, the centre-right candidate who won yesterday’s presidential election. She carries strong echoes of history too. Ms Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian leader who, from his 1961 coup to his 1979 assassination, oversaw South Korea’s remarkable economic rise. Her defeated liberal rival Moon Jae-in, the son of a North Korean refugee, was a student democrat imprisoned by Park’s authoritarian regime.

Bilateral relations between all four nations are bitter and unpredictable to say the least. Three sets of relations, in particular, need to be closely watched.

The first is that between Seoul and Pyongyang. Ties have deteriorated badly under Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s outgoing president, who has taken a hard line against North Korea in contrast with the "sunshine” policy of his predecessors. The North’s response has been increased belligerence. Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and fired artillery at South Korean islands. It tested a second nuclear weapon. Mr Lee’s stance is widely seen to have failed. Then again, the sunshine policy brought few benefits – and a nuclear test of its own.

Nevertheless, Ms Park is expected to adopt a less rigid position. She could conceivably pull off a "Nixon in China” by using her nationalist credentials as cover for more flexibility. Whatever Seoul does, though, few expect Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program.

The second potentially tricky relationship is between South Korea and Japan. Mr Lee began his term five years ago in conciliatory fashion. The two sides signed a currency swap arrangement and pondered a bilateral trade agreement. Encouraged by Washington, they came close to a deal on the sharing of military intelligence. Then history intervened. Mr Lee became convinced Japan was not reflecting properly on the past. He visited the Korean-controlled Dokdo islands, known as Takeshima in Japan, which also claims them. He suggested that if the Japanese emperor wanted to visit Korea, he should first apologise for the war.

With Mr Abe in charge, relations could further worsen. He disputes that Japan's imperial army abducted sex slaves from Korea on an industrial scale. If he pushes for a rewording of the 1993 Kono apology over the issue, sentiment in South Korea will be inflamed. Washington wants its two big allies in the region to cooperate, especially on security matters. It may be disappointed.

The most volatile relationship of all is between China and Japan. The proximate cause is the dispute over the uninhabited Senkatu Islands, controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu. China says Japan stole the islands in the 1890s and should have given them back at the end of the Second World War. Japan says the islands were "terra nullius” when it found them and have been Japanese ever since. Beijing wants the islands as part of what it sees as a recovery from historical humiliation. Strategically, it wants to break out of the "first island chain” so that its navy can have the run of the Pacific.

Deep historical hatreds are more frightening still. China shows signs of wanting to squeeze Japan until it squeaks. Mr Abe wants to tear up Japan’s pacifist constitution and teach Japanese children that their country should not be singled out for special criticism over the war. He wants to spend more on the military. He even has an adviser who says Japan could win a naval war against China if it fought one now. Northeast Asia has not looked as scary in years.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012

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