WHAT was basically a decent year for Asia was clouded over in 2002's final months by a series of provocative announcements by North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program intentions.
China is carrying out what appears to be smooth generational leadership change. The Japanese economy, the world's second largest, is still sick, a pasty white. With American help, the Philippines government seems to be having some success in combating longtime Islamic insurgents on some of its islands.
North Korea, in terms of size, economy, and intrinsic interest is among the least of the Asian nations. Nonetheless, through its annoying ability and willingness to make and export nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, it managed to give both the United States and its own much more significant neighbors - China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea - a serious case of nerves in 2002. What to do about North Korea remained a problem at the end of 2002 and dealing with it will present perhaps Asia's major challenge in 2003.
China, with its 1.3 billion people and representing perhaps the most interesting market in the world in terms of growth and potential, is in the process of significant leadership change.
President Jiang Zemin is stepping down - sort of - to be succeeded by Hu Jintao. Making sense of China's new leadership will present President Bush's administration an important challenge in 2003. U.S. trade with China continued to grow in 2002.
Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, now in his 20th month in power, is on the way to becoming a Japanese leader whom Americans recognize, even if in part just for his distinctive appearance. So far he has showed more profile than courage in tackling Japan's fundamental economic problems.
Interlocking, crony-ridden banks and companies, closely intertwined with the country's political elite, still need to be untangled and cleaned up if the country is to be restored to economic vigor.
Part of the American war on terrorism has included military assistance to the Philippine government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in putting down longtime Islamic extremist resistance to central government rule in some of the country's islands. The combined U.S.-Philippine effort has met some success, although, unfortunately, bombs have continued to go off here and there as the rebels have responded to military action against them.
South Korea held end-of-the-year presidential elections which called into question the country's whole relationship with the United States. The winner, Roh Moo-hyun, ran against his opponents on the basis of loosening South Korea's ties with the United States and continuing to pursue his predecessor's “sunshine policy” toward North Korea, as opposed to Washington's preferred more confrontational approach.
The status of Taiwan remains a potential source of conflict between the United States and China, but direct interactions between the two are increasing, thus serving to preclude war between them which could involve the United States.
U.S. trade with Asian countries continues to be the principal feature and future of American relations with them, the vagaries of North Korea aside.
Editor's note: This is another in a series of editorials about the state of the world as one year ends and another begins.