North Korea's nuclear ambitions seem to have died down, at least for now. The Six-Party Talks have, at long last, succeeded -- thanks, apparently, to China's solid opposition to the nuclearization of Northeast Asia. Under the aegis of the Six-Party umbrella, the US and North Korea have even held the bilateral talks that North Korea's Kim Jong-il has long coveted.
So, for now, northeast Asia is temporarily calmer and less unstable than it has been for almost two decades. Yet it remains a potential flashpoint.
During this time of tension, an increasingly self-confident South Korea began to chart a course independent of its US patron. In November 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused the South Korean government of having enriched a tiny amount of uranium -- to a level close to what could be used in an atomic weapon. The government denied this, claiming that the experiments were conducted without its knowledge by academic researchers "for scientific interest."
South Korea's evolving foreign policy also may involve moving closer to China, as Korean nationalists join the Chinese in resisting Japan's rival claims to potential hydrocarbon deposits in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. New generations of South Koreans, who have no personal recollections of -- and perhaps only casual interest in -- the Korean War, apparently resent what they regard as the US' undermining South Korea's "sunshine policy" toward North Korea.
For Japan, North Korea's missile capability is the most immediate concern. A sweeping defense review that Japan recently carried out reaffirms that it will continue to oppose its immediate neighbors' possession of nuclear arms. Of course, Japan itself already possesses both nuclear technology and solid-fuel missiles. But the core of Japan's defense strategy remains strong ties with the US, not military self-sufficiency.
All in all, the calmer situation in Northeast Asia might seem to be a fragile basis for creating long-term peace and prosperity in the region. But the basic lesson from Western Europe, whose greatest powers, France and Germany, fought three great wars in 70 years, is that the only lasting solution to conflict is to embed neighboring countries in dense networks of economic, political, and security relationships, and in regional institutions that serve their mutual interests.
Of course, the creators of today's united Europe did not start by calling for national sovereignty to be abrogated. Indeed, Robert Schuman once declared that "Europe will not be built in a day, nor as part of an overall design. It will be built through the practical achievements that first create a sense of common purpose."
Accordingly, what became the EU started inconspicuously, with the integration of French and German industries that had been most directly associated with war production -- coal and steel. Only after economic integration had progressed did the first serious efforts at political integration take place.
In today's East Asia, too, the market is fostering integration. Now that the 10 southeast Asian states have been gathered into ASEAN -- and are promulgating an ASEAN Charter -- the concept of an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG) that would incorporate ASEAN and China, Japan, and (a presumably unified and nuclear-free) Korea is moving forward steadily.