Same Problem, Different Angles: Japan and South Korea’s Divergent Approaches to Cooperation with Russia

By | June 06, 2016 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un watches as North Korea launches a long-range rocket in February, 2016. While the North Korean leader's reaction was seemingly one of impression, none of the other countries in the region were amused by this. Yet their differing approaches to one another reveal some interesting fissures. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un watches the launch of a rocket in February 2016. Kim may have been satisfied, but the regional powers were not amused. Their divergent responses to North Korean adventurism raise some interesting questions about the standard view of East Asian political competition. | Image: KCNA

It is easy – too easy, in fact – to see Northeast Asia as “stuck” in the past: The Cold War, dead almost everywhere else, “sustained through Pyongyang.” While it makes some sense to divide the region into competing blocs — with China, North Korea, and Russia on one side (the Continental Powers), and Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the other (the Oceanic Powers) — in reality things don’t break down nearly so cleanly. The policies chosen and paths pursued follow a flexible and far less predictable logic.

Differing responses from South Korea and Japan (ostensibly members of the same bloc) to Russia’s comparatively more hardline approach to North Korea in 2016 highlight the point. In this essay, Sino-NK’s Russia and Eurasia Analyst, Tony Rinna, underscores the pragmatic considerations that drive Japanese and South Korean choices to cooperate (or not) with Russia on the North Korea “problem.” – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Same Problem, Different Angles: Japan and South Korea’s Divergent Approaches to Cooperation with Russia

by Tony Rinna

At the onset of 2016, a fresh set of North Korean security provocations — a nuclear test and subsequent rocket launch — prompted the Russian foreign ministry to condemn Pyongyang’s actions more harshly than ever before. In the past, Moscow had merely condemned the DPRK for its tests, but these most recent acts of adventurism not only prompted cautionary words from Russian officials about the potential for kinetic action against North Korea, but also highlighted Russia’s role as a regional actor. In so doing, a puzzling outcome arose: Japan and South Korea took markedly different approaches to the shifting Russian strategy.

Many an external observer has reduced the sum total of the situation on the Korean peninsula to China, North Korea, and Russia on the one side, and Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the other. In the context of this ostensible divide, it is logical that South Korea would view Russia’s role rather less favorably than the states on the other side of the aisle. However, Japanese positive outreach toward Russia runs contrary to this expectation, thus seeming to prove that the divide is not really based on the principle of collaboration within a given bloc and competition outside the confines of these groupings. Relations should therefore be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Whether Russia is an indispensable partner in the quest to manage the North Korean security quandary is open to debate. But one thing is clear: Russia is not going to stop trying to play a role in collaborative crisis management. Differing views of Russia’s part in this dynamic will continue to complicate an already complex situation, wherein parties agree that a threat exists, but cannot agree on best practice for dealing with it.

Moscow’s Condemnation of the DPRK’s Misadventures | Despite developments in DPRK-Russia defense and military ties in 2015, Russia roundly condemned North Korea’s threat to respond with nuclear strikes to annual ROK-US Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military drills. Later, Russian foreign ministry officials also cautioned that Pyongyang’s provocative statements could be grounds to legally justify foreign military intervention against itself. Russia feels highly vulnerable in the region, as underscored by its vociferous opposition to the possibility of an American missile defense system being deployed in the ROK.

As former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya states, Russia’s reaction to North Korea’s provocations was unprecedentedly severe this year, using language such as “totally unacceptable” and “irresponsible.” Russia, according to Toloraya, is losing its appetite for supporting North Korea, as Russia has less to gain — and more to lose — than China from continuing its limited, low-calorie alliance with Pyongyang.

The Japanese government responded to the North Korean rocket launch of February 7 by calling for cooperation between itself and Russia. Japan-Russia relations, while not especially hostile, remain hindered by the ongoing Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute as well as the lack of a formal peace treaty following the Second World War.1)An agreement was signed between Japan and the USSR in 1956 to continue negotiations over a peace treaty, but nothing has actually been implemented. South Korea’s relationship with Russia, conversely, is designated as a “strategic partnership,” although the fullness of the term has not been realized. The Republic of Korea, unlike Japan, is not a participant in punitive sanctions against Russia initiated in 2014, even though Seoul tends to align itself closely with Washington on foreign policy issues.

Yet the responses of the two to Russia’s condemnatory stance would tend to indicate the opposite state of affairs. A South Korean assemblyperson and former intelligence official, Lee Cheol-woo accused the Russian Federation of supplying parts necessary for the construction of the long-range rocket that North Korea launched in February, an accusation that apparently emerged from intelligence collected by South Korea. Seeing as the revelation came when negotiations between South Korea and the US over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile syste had begun in earnest, it is possible that this was a case of the politicization of intelligence. South Korean politicians may have divulged this information — a common occurrence — as a way of layering further justification upon the deployment of an American missile defense system on the Korean peninsula.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye in 2013. During the meeting the two discussed economic as well as security relations. Nevertheless, cooperation between Moscow and Seoul over Pyongyang's fear-inducing activities have not been at its highest during the past few months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye in 2013. Cooperation between Moscow and Seoul over Pyongyang’s activities has not been at its best during the past few months. | Image: CCTV.

In any case, following Seoul’s direct accusation, the South Korean government proposed the initiation of Five-Party Talks, a format which would have exclude North Korea. Russia’s Foreign Minister condemned the proposal almost immediately, saying,  “We have heard a proposal from South Korea to gather in the ‘six-minus-one’ format but this is not a good idea.” Nevertheless, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se pushed forward, insisting that some form of five-way discussion was the best option. “North Korea is not interested in the Six-Party Talks, and everybody is aware that it will not be easy to hold the Six-Party Talks in the near future,” he explained. For Russia, the Six-Party Talks were a way for Moscow to maintain an active and robust presence in the Korean knot outside the UN Security Council. The idea that North Korea should be excluded from a similar set of negotiations runs contrary to Russia’s political as well as security interests in the region.

Conversely, subsequent to Japanese calls for a multilateral response to North Korea’s latest provocations, Japan and the Russian Federation consulted one another at the bilateral level. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, calling for a diplomatic response to the latest incidents. Likewise, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and Kimihiro Ishikane, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian affairs bureau, conducted discussions that included plans for cooperation on UN sanctions.

Aside from pure security considerations, South Korea also undercut Russia’s economic ties with North Korea by laying sanctions against the North in response to the DPRK’s nuclear test and long-range rocket launch. The sanctions halted the Rason-Khasan railway project, on which Russia and the two Koreas previously cooperated.

Explanations for Seoul and Tokyo’s Divergent Positions | One reason, from the Russian side, why Japan and Russia have taken a synergistic approach to North Korea is that as part of Russia’s “pivot to the East,” the Russian Federation does not want to limit itself solely to a relationship with China, with which Japan is also at odds further south. Japanese outreach to Russia can only help to mend fences between the two powers, even if it does not directly affect unresolved bilateral disputes between the two.

Seoul, however, does not see Russia as particularly indispensable as far as inter-Korean security considerations are concerned. Immediately following the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator at the former Six-Party Talks, Hwang Joon-kook, met his counterparts from China, Japan and the US. Hwang stated at the time that plans to meet with Russia’s Igor Morgulov were still being coordinated. The message from South Korea is unmistakable: that Russia is not critical to the international response to the DPRK’s actions, a priority for Seoul.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, the vice-president of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party Masahiko Komura told Russia’s Vladimir Putin on behalf of Shinzo Abe that Japan hopes for cooperation with Russia in all possible areas, while also urging Russia to participate in the sanctions regime against the North. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the two sides had agreed to collaborate on areas in the international arena that would allow Japan and Russia to develop a more robust partnership, to the ultimate ends of overcoming obstacles in their relationship.

Russia has taken a different line to South Korea over the role of negotiations. Moscow has pushed for the continuation of direct talks with the North, while Seoul’s latest policy moves support sanctions and other forms of pressure (such as the aforementioned military drills) without negotiations.  When Hwang and Morgulov did meet, Hwang called upon Russia to use its veto power on the UN Security Council to help punish North Korea, while Morgulov reasserted Russia’s long-held position that it will only support the resolution of the crisis through negotiations.

Members of a Japanese uyoku dantai nationalist group prepare to protest near the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on February 7, 2016, designated as Northern Territories Day, to demand Russia cede sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories. Japan and Russia have managed to cooperate to an extent on North Korea despite lingering tensions in their bilateral relationship. | Image: Tony Rinna/Sino-NK

Members of a Japanese uyoku dantai nationalist group prepare to protest near the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on February 7, 2016, designated as Northern Territories Day, to demand Russia cede sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories. Japan and Russia have managed to cooperate to an extent on North Korea despite lingering tensions in their bilateral relationship. | Image: Tony Rinna/Sino-NK

Furthermore, despite the common ground between Russia and South Korea in condemning the DPRK’s provocations, the issue of missile defense remains a thorn in the region. South Korea and the US have been conducting talks regarding the deployment of THAAD. Since the initial proposal for THAAD deployment to South Korea, Seoul has shown a progressively more positive stance toward the issue. Japan has also adopted a positive view of THAAD, considering deploying it on Japanese soil, too. Russia, like China, has expressed concern over the prospect of a THAAD deployment in Northeast Asia, stating that the positioning of the powerful American missile apparatus endangers Russian security.

Conclusion | Japan and South Korea’s respective positions on Russian involvement in the “North Korea question” are based on pragmatic considerations. Japan, Russia, and South Korea share a common view that North Korean provocations must be stopped. Japan and Russia, whose bilateral relationship is beset by an ongoing territorial dispute, have largely managed to cooperate on the North Korean security threat, while Russia and South Korea have not collaborated to any great extent despite a relatively cordial bilateral relationship on all fronts.

For the region as a whole, the lack of a cohesive stance toward Russia’s role is likely to compound the complicated nature of inter-state management of the North Korean security crisis. Whether Russia is a help or a hindrance is in many ways a subjective issue. The Russian foreign ministry has insisted that it will continue to press for North Korea’s return to the negotiating table. Yet given the interconnected and multilateral nature of the North Korean security problem, the effectiveness and success of Russian efforts will largely depend on the reactions of other parties.

   [ + ]

1. An agreement was signed between Japan and the USSR in 1956 to continue negotiations over a peace treaty, but nothing has actually been implemented.