In Japan, we witnessed a political earthquake. Frustrated Japanese voters tossed out the party that has ruled that country virtually uninterrupted for the past half century.
And in South Korea, we witnessed the simultaneous vulnerability and intractability of the totalitarian North, and visited the museum of a war that should never have been.
It was a fascinating time to be in northeast Asia.
“Speaking with the China Health Economics Institute”
Photo by Callista Gingrich
What follows are my observations of our trip to this vitally important – and changing – part of the world.
A History Making Election in Japan
We were in Tokyo on the opening days of their parliamentary election campaign.
The Japanese have a political system that many Americans would no doubt find attractive. Although their parties prepare all year around, they only have a two week formal campaign.
From our first day in Tokyo, it was clear this would be the most significant election since the founding of the longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955.
Lessons for America in Japan’s Failure to Relaunch Its Economy
The Japanese remain the second biggest economy in the world, although it is clear China is rapidly catching up with them.
What’s more, Japan is a very modern country of great efficiency and tremendous scientific, technological and managerial capabilities.
However, the Japanese have lost confidence through the long period of economic stagnation which began in 1989 and continues to this day. There is a lot in the Japanese failure to relaunch their economy which should worry American policymakers.
After 54 Years of Virtually Uninterrupted Rule, the Governing Machine Gets Tossed Out
After 54 years in which the LDP was in power for all but one 11-month period in the early 1990s, the combination of economic decay and corruption finally forced enough people to abandon the LDP to form the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as a serious broad-based competitor.
In this election, the public was clearly eager to send a resounding signal of rejection to the entrenched LDP machine. But the final results were a bigger defeat for the LDP than anticipated.
When all the votes were counted, the DPJ and its allies had a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament. This will give them the opportunity to pass major changes.
Like Sacramento, Albany and Trenton, the Permanent Bureaucracy in Japan Rules
There are two challenges facing the newly empowered Democratic Party of Japan, however.
The first challenge is the degree to which the DPJ is really an anti-LDP coalition. The head of the DPJ, for instance, is a grandson of the co-founder of the LDP. It’s not clear yet if the DPJ has a stable majority to implement its agenda.
The second challenge facing the new ruling party in Japan is one we also face here in the United States.
The great stabilizing force in Japanese government has been the permanent bureaucracy. Much like Sacramento, Albany, and Trenton, the key Japanese interest groups and the permanent Japanese bureaucracy combine to overwhelm the popular will as expressed through elected officials.
If the DPJ Can Reform the Bureaucracy, We Could Learn From Them
The LDP clearly failed to reform the bureaucracy. It will be fascinating to watch the DPJ undertake this project of institutional reform.
If they can, we may learn some lessons that can be applied to our local, state and federal government bureaucracies.
No one knows yet how this election will influence Japanese-American ties. The more likely a DPJ victory became, the more their leadership emphasized continuity and cooperation with the United States. Time will tell.
In Korea, the Death of a Fighter for Freedom and Democracy
After a visit to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, Callista and I left Japan for Seoul, South Korea.
In Seoul, we stayed in the Plaza Hotel across from the primary site for paying respects to former President Kim Dae-jung, who died on August 18.
The Nobel laureate’s death brought together most of the country in tribute to his courage, his life-long fight for freedom and democracy, and the sincerity of his efforts to reconcile with and open up North Korea.
The biggest news of our South Korean trip was the North Korean decision to send a significant delegation to express their condolences at the death of the former South Korean President.
A Consensus That North Korea Won’t Give Up Their Nuclear Weapons
We met with the chairman of the foreign relations committee before and after he met with the North Korean delegation. The chairman found the North Koreans much more subdued and open to dialogue than they had been in recent times.
There was a general consensus that the sanctions were hurting North Korea and the dictatorship was beginning to look for ways to appease other countries and get more economic aid.
There was also a general consensus that the North Koreans would not give up their nuclear weapons and missile technology.
This will turn out to be a much harder problem than people expect.
South Korea: A Success Story of the American Alliance
I have had an interest in Korea for 56 years, dating back to my father’s service in the Korean War in 1953.
It is one of the great success stories of a hard working, free people operating within the framework of an American alliance to create one of the most prosperous and freest countries in the world.
There is a lot to be learned by studying the long difficult process of South Korean democracy.
Today the alliance is the collaboration of two genuinely free nations. Twenty-eight thousand American troops reinforce 700,000 South Koreans in a military alliance which has preserved the peace for over a half century.
It is vital that we ratify the United States-South Korean Free Trade Agreement as part of sustaining and deepening the alliance.
Every American Should Visit the Korean War Museum
For any American who needs a reminder of the cost of national security weakness and lack of preparation, it is vividly provided by the Korean War Museum.
I wish every American could visit this memorial to an unnecessary war.
The Korean War was totally avoidable. It was caused by American and South Korean military weakness and mixed signals about whether we would defend South Korea.
The result of weakness and miscommunication was a three-year war that killed 33,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Koreans.
The next time someone suggests weakening our intelligence and our defense systems, encourage them to visit the Korean War Museum.
Next week I’ll report on our visit to China.
Newt’s Quick Links:
- Callista and I traveled to Asia with Herman Pirchner of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC). The AFPC does an amazing job of organizing key meetings and identifying opportunities to learn and have a dialogue. You can learn more about the AFPC here.
- Also, make sure to take a sneak peek at our new bilingual opinion and news site geared towards Hispanics, The Americano.com. It highlights the rich history of Hispanic heritage and conservative principles while covering the issues most important to Hispanics today. Visit TheAmericano.com and share your thoughts before the official launch this month.