Opinion: Victory for Obama, by way of Pyongyang

NEW YORK — One of the many theories about North Korea which appears to float on thin air goes something like this: China, the one country with real leverage over crazy Kim and his gulag, loves the status quo.

Like that guy in your neighborhood who walks around with a pit bull straining against its leash, the Chinese parade their influence on the Pygmy of Pyongyang, as if to remind the neighborhood that without the strong hand of Beijing, Kim Jong-il’s steroid-fed army of Stalinist zealots would run amok all over East Asia.

If that is, in fact, how China views Kim, then Beijing has grossly miscalculated. In March, the leash broke and a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. This latest bit of brazen recklessness — nuclear tests, missile launches, etc. — apparently caught the attention of the Japanese military’s senior commanders.

On Monday, citing the region’s “security situation," Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced that he was not going to kick the U.S. Marines out of their bases in Okinawa, after all. It turns out that American jarheads come in handy when facing a Chinese naval build up, a nuclear-armed nutcase next door and a domestic economy about as likely to return to double digit growth as the Baltimore Orioles are to win the American League East.

Read more on whether Hatoyama just committed the equivalent of political suicide. And, watch below an On Location video about rising anger in Okinawa:

Hatoyama, of course, had made a great show during last year’s election campaign of promising to fulfill Okinawans’ desire to be rid of the huge Futenma air base in their midst. But the rhetoric extended far beyond a single base, as Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) questioned the bedrock of U.S. strategy in the region, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

At the same time, Hatoyama proposed that an East Asian security group — including China and other regional powers — might be preferable to the status quo maintained by the huge U.S. naval presence in place since World War II. Most notably, this naval presence takes the form of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, whose home part at Yokosuka, is on the Japanese mainland.


The DPJ, which ended nearly five decades of rule by the staunchly pro-American Liberal Democratic Party last August, ran on an election manifesto that pledged to “re-examine the role of the U.S. military in the security of the Asia-Pacific region and the significance of U.S. bases in Japan.”

Well, apparently the reassessment is over. On Monday, Hatoyama did something no Japanese leader likes to do: He apologized for having to break his campaign promise. Visiting Okinawa for the first time since his slow-motion climb down began last month, he said all Japanese had to be “willing to share the burden, because the bases are necessary for national security."

Given the sensitivities involved — the Marines suffered more than 12,000 dead and another 38,000 wounded taking the island from Japan in 1945 — the Obama administration deserves a lot of credit for not going all John Bolton on Hatoyama.

Not that Okinawans didn’t have a point. While Japan took sovereignty of the island back in the early 1970s, a number of large American bases — including the huge Kadena Air Force base and the base at the center of the current controversy, Futenma Air Station, with its complement of 20,000 Marines — remained on the island. These installations have been uneasy neighbors.

A notorious rape by a Marine of a 12-year-old Japanese girl in 1995 and aircraft accidents over the years that caused civilian deaths have led to the welcome mat wearing exceedingly thin.

But facing the uncertainties of the early 21st century in East Asia, the certainties of an alliance forged in the 20th century apparently grew more apparent. For Hatoyama’s DPJ, it’s a humiliating retreat. For the Obama administration, it’s a small but important victory. For China, however, it’s just desserts for a cynical policy of keeping a wild dog on a short leash.