Russia and Korean Security: The Views from Seoul and Tokyo

By | February 18, 2019 | No Comments

Asia-Pacific leaders including Moon Jae-in, Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. | Image: Wikicommons

Great Power competition loomed large over this year’s Munich Security Conference, and while the event focused primarily on Europe and its periphery, discussion also touched upon East Asia. The pre-Conference report paid special attention to Japan’s role in East Asian security writ large, and ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa held meetings with both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, in both instances (of course) to discuss granular issues of security on the Korean peninsula.

One overarching topic was the seemingly widening divide between Russia and the United States as “global influencers”. It is a much more complicated question than Cold War logics suggest. After all, just because Washington is currently on poor terms with the Kremlin doesn’t mean Washington’s friends are, too, and the same goes for the Kremlin. The ways in which Japan and South Korea deal with Russia’s role in East Asian regional security underscores the point.

Here, in the first of several essays covering the US’ Northeast Asia alliance network – and following up on a Sino-NK essay published nearly three years ago – Senior Editor Anthony V. Rinna looks at how Seoul and Tokyo view cooperation with Russia. – Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

Russia and Korean Security: The Views from Seoul and Tokyo

by Anthony Rinna

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was a reasonable lens through which to view East Asia between 1945 and 1991, and Cold War-era regional frames have mostly persisted into the present, albeit more as a result of geopolitics than ideology. Nevertheless, even as Russia-US relations have deteriorated once more, US allies in Northeast Asia – Seoul and Tokyo – continue to view cooperation with Moscow as necessary for dealing with Korean security questions.

The Kremlin’s actions and policies vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula, particularly over the past two years, have been widely analyzed in the West through the prism of Moscow’s ties to Beijing, to say nothing of growing DPRK-Russia connections. Given the enmity between the DPRK and Washington as well as cooling Sino-American ties, this could cause observers to view Russia’s role in Korea as an extension of the global Moscow-Washington power struggle. Moscow lacks independent influence in Northeast Asia (something that even some of the most prominent Korea analysts in Russia admit) and may well see openings to challenge US influence on the Russia’s Asian periphery. Seoul and Tokyo, however view the Kremlin’s role in ways outside of traditional understandings of power and influence.

This isn’t to say that Japan and the ROK’s ties with Russia regarding Korean security, particularly in light of their respective alliances with the US, have always been smooth. Both Japan and the ROK, as military partners of the United States, have adopted policies in the realm of missile defense that run counter to Russian interests. Moscow’s reactions to cooperation with the US over missile defense however, have been somewhat divergent. Complicating Moscow-Tokyo relations is the prospective deployment of the US Aegis Ashore missile system in Japan. Yet based on Tokyo’s positive attitude toward cooperation with Moscow, it appears that Japan’s decision to host American arms,does not in Tokyo’s view nullify Japanese goodwill toward Moscow. ROK-Russia relations, meanwhile went largely unscathed during the THAAD crisis of 2017, possibly because Moscow and Seoul valued each other as economic partners.

Dynamics in Japanese and South Korean Russia Policy | In Tokyo, a key policy aim of the Shinzo Abe government has been to build up Japan’s Self Defense Force, buttressed by major defense budget allocations as well as potential revisions to the post-WWII constitution. These dynamics in Japan’s defense policy have occurred largely in response to the rise of China, but Russia is not far from the minds of Japanese defense and security officials. Over the years Abe and Vladimir Putin have held countless summits, with both leaders keen to develop bilateral economic cooperation in particular. Nevertheless, tensions over the disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories continue to mount, proving to be an endless source of frustration for hopes that Japan-Russia relations can normalize and develop.

Tokyo’s position toward Russia however, should be understood in its proper context. Indeed, Japan’s attitudes toward Russia have evolved from the Cold War era. Prior to 1991, Japan considered the USSR to be a threat to its security, even fearing the possibility of a Soviet invasion of Hokkaido. By 2013, however, the Japanese government had declared Russia an important partner. One of Tokyo’s main (admittedly lofty) strategic goals in relation to cooperation with Moscow on security is to neutralize the formation of a Sino-Russian bloc in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Japan hopes that Moscow will leverage its growing influence with the DPRK to help stop Pyongyang’s provocations. None of this, however can paper over the fact that the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories quarrel constitute a major hurdle to the normalization of Japan-Russia ties.

In contrast to the festering tensions between Japan and the Russian Federation, ROK-Russia ties are not beholden to any disputes. Similar to Japan, Seoul’s policy toward Moscow has evolved considerably from the Cold War era, going from no formal diplomatic recognition up to the late 1980’s to the declaration of a Moscow-Seoul strategic partnership in 2008. Regarding policy developments in Seoul that affect ties with the Kremlin, Moon Jae-in’s outreach to the DPRK contrasts with Park Geun-hye’s comparatively hardline approach to inter-Korean relations. Concurrent with Seoul’s rapprochement with Pyongyang, the ROK values the Russian Federation as a partner, particularly in its New Northern Policy (an economic initiative aimed ultimately at fostering commercial interconnectedness between the DPRK, Russia and South Korea). Furthermore, Russian and South Korean officials have recently held meetings on nuclear security.

Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, ROK minister of foreign affairs Kang Kyung-hwa and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2018. Russia was notably absent from this meeting of chief diplomats aimed at advancing peace on the Korean Peninsula. | Image: Wikicommons

Japan and South Korea on Security Cooperation with Russia | In the summer of 2018 in a meeting with Russian lawmakers, Chuiti Date, the chair of the Japanese Diet’s upper house, declared that cooperation with Russia was a critical aspect of Tokyo’s policies toward the Korean security crisis. Date’s comments echoed Shinzo Abe’s own sentiments on Moscow-Tokyo cooperation. While Tokyo’s sentiments toward the Kremlin stem in part from regional realities, Japan also views Moscow’s security capacity in part from a global vantage point as well. Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono has noted how Russia’s influence to promote North Korean denuclearization, by virtue of its veto power at the UN, could be of benefit to Tokyo. Furthermore Japan, like Russia, has been actively involved not only in efforts to stem nuclear proliferation in North Korea but in Iran as well, another potential source of Russo-Japanese cooperation. Indeed, ahead of the third “2+2” meeting between Japanese defense and foreign ministers, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono stated that security cooperation with Russia was not limited to Northeast Asia, but included Iran and Syria as well.

Security cooperation between the Russian Federation and South Korea, on the other hand, occurs in a much different framework. To be sure, the ROK recognizes the Kremlin’s influence as a legitimately-recognized nuclear weapons state. South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon, like Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono, has also highlighted Russia’s influence by way of its UN veto. For Seoul, however, Russia’s value as a security partner is indirect while at the same time crucial for the current South Korean government’s wider vision for Northeast Asia. The ways in which Seoul has related to Russia as a security partner have evolved since the transition from Park Geun-hye to Moon Jae-in. Analyzing Seoul and Tokyo’s views on security cooperation with Russia nearly three years ago, it appeared that Tokyo valued the Russian Federation as a partner, while the ROK generally downplayed the notion of a constructive role on the Kremlin’s part. The essential argument still holds water today, yet for different reasons. Rather than Seoul dismissing Russia’s significance, South Korea has found a way for the Russian Federation to serve as a player in Northeast Asian security while suiting the ROK’s broader economic interests.

Moscow’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula is not unlike this area of the DPRK-Russia border: though spanning many years, the Kremlin’s ties to Pyongyang as yet remain highly underdeveloped. | Image: Wikicommons

Following a summit between Vladimir Putin and Park Geun-hye in September 2016, Moscow and Seoul vowed to deepen cooperation over North Korea, with Putin highlighting the Kremlin’s “categorical opposition” to WMD proliferation. Cooperation on security notwithstanding, in the grand scheme of Russia-South Korea ties, as former Russian ambassador to Seoul Gleb Ivashentsov notes, economics has traditionally been the mainstay of ROK-Russian Federation relations. Exactly one year after Putin’s summit with then-president Park, Moon Jae-in declared that economic cooperation with Russia could be part of a wider strategy aimed at fostering peace in Korea. Furthermore, Moon noted that Russia-South Korea cooperation cannot stand on its own, but must include cooperation with North Korea.

The mainstay of South Korea’s policy of fostering peace on the Korean Peninsula by way of economic relationships is the New Northern Policy. Essentially, the New Northern Policy envisions a Korean Peninsula connected – especially by means of physical infrastructure that traverses the Korean Peninsula – to the greater Eurasian landmass. For Seoul’s New Northern Policy, the Russian Federation is a means to an end, in that the ROK government hopes to connect the two Koreas to other markets in Europe and Asia via Russian territory. For the Republic of Korea, therefore, security cooperation with the Kremlin is ensconced in the notion that Russia can in part facilitate economic rapprochement between the Koreas, rather than Russia having major leverage in inducing the DPRK to denuclearize.

No Permanent Friends (or Enemies) | Alliances with Washington have not stopped Seoul or Tokyo from reaching out to the US’s major foe in dealing with North Korea. Even as the US may not share Japan or the ROK’s views on the possibility of Russia playing a constructive role in fostering peace in Korea, Seoul and Tokyo’s outreach to the Kremlin do not appear to contradict US interests or policies. For Japan, cooperation with the Russian Federation has both a regional foundation as well as being part of Japan’s professed strategy of being an agent of peace in the world. For South Korea, the Russian Federation offers the Korean Peninsula a chance to expand its global economic connections, with a hope in the background that prosperity will diminish the risk of violent conflict.

Whether Japan and South Korea’s tactics in relating to Russia will bear their desired fruit remains to be seen. But what we can see thus far is that neither Seoul or Tokyo is averse to reaching out to their greatest friend’s primary foe. It is an example of Palmerston’s oft-cited remark about permanent friends versus permanent interests, as well as a case-in-point of how Cold War dynamics, while still a part of Northeast Asia’s geopolitical landscape, have changed with the times.

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