The Korean Peninsula, along with the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, remains one of the most sensitive zones in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), which is turning into the center of gravity of a new global game. The latter mainly consists of a complex interaction of the strategies and goals of the leading global players, most of which (the United States, China, Japan, Russia and India) are located either in the Asia-Pacific Region itself or in close proximity to it.
This does not mean that there is nothing left for other countries to do but play the role of extras in the game of the main world powers. However, it seems important in this context to recall the hierarchy of importance of the participants in the world political action, bearing in mind that such a hierarchy is always present in human history. Meanwhile, many of the above-mentioned “others”, in spite of having formal attributes of statehood (for example, being today UN members), are rather objects in the game which is being played by its main participants and very often in the territory of the “others”.
The undeniable fact of the presence of the above-mentioned hierarchy explains (but not justifies) the recently frequent collisions between the Charter of the UN-postulated equality of all countries under international law and the occasionally emerging urgent need of some of the leading powers to violate this right in their relations with some of the “others”. Lofty and noble principles are rarely compatible with the reality of life.
Two Koreas and the USA
These observations are directly relevant to the situation emerging around each of the two present-day Koreas and in the Korean Peninsula region, as a whole. For example, the images of North Korea (“great and horrible, capable of unleashing a third world war”) persistently distributed by the global media have hardly anything to do with the reality.
However, these images help overturn the hierarchy of the problems of the Korean Peninsula to the benefit of some of the leading players, in the first place the USA. For example, to consider as a key problem not the dividedness of the people that has been one whole until fairly recently, not the de jure unfinished war on the peninsula, but the nuclear and missile program of the “great and horrible” DPRK. In fact, the indicated program is a consequence of the above key problem.
If Barack Obama’s recent remark regarding the aggressive behavior of certain powers through weakness and fear can be applied to anyone at all, then it would be the DPRK in the first place. As the weight and influence of any country on world events are determined today mainly by its economic power (in this respect, the perfect examples are Japan and Germany), the weakness of the DPRK is beyond doubt.
And the DPRK’s (alleged) possession of a small amount of nuclear weapons cannot compensate for it. As early as 30 years ago, we could witness, in the Middle East, the ability of modern means of aggression (in the first place, of the Air Force) to inflict a pre-emptive, swift and destructive blow even on the secure facilities of the nuclear infrastructure.
Therefore, there are more than enough genuine reasons for Pyongyang to be scared. They include the significantly better funding of the defense sphere in South Korea (Republic of Korea (RK)), the military presence of the USA (with which the DPRK formally is still in a state of war) on the Korean Peninsula, and the US–South Korea military exercises near the 38th parallel that have been conducted virtually non-stop in recent years.
The propaganda hysteria periodically launched in North Korea regarding its readiness to inflict a “devastating blow” on everything and everyone is solely internally focused. It helps maintain the state of mobilization inside North-Korean society and demonstrate to it the need to continue the extremely expensive military programs.
But this kind of propaganda cannot scare those against whom it is allegedly directed. What’s more, it is useful for some of the major players who are solving their own problems in the big regional game. For the USA, they are caused by the need to maintain its military presence on the front lines of its confrontation with China; for Japan – by the growing problem of military confrontation also with the PRC.
There is a suspicion sometimes that the “irreconcilable opponents” on the Korean Peninsula negotiate in advance the format of their heated public demonstrations for mutual benefit. However, this does not eliminate the fact of danger of the bilateral US–North Korea games “on a knife edge”. Luckily, there have not been any catastrophic failures in these games so far.
As far as South Korea is concerned, its weight in the regional processes is undoubtedly higher than that of the DPRK, mainly due to the possession of a larger and more advanced economy, which is, on top of that, integrated in international economic relations with the leading players. Each of them has its own problems in the relations with the RK. For example, the USA has not been able for more than ten years now to solve the problem of periodically escalating tensions in the Seoul–Tokyo relationship.
According to Washington’s original intent, the purpose of this relationship was to bring together these two key allies of the USA in the face of the “growing Chinese threat”. Today, however, some new motives are visible in the desire of the USA to reduce the level of tensions in the relations between Tokyo and Seoul (as well as Beijing), which are briefly discussed below.
The difficulties in the Japan–South Korea relations are externally manifested in the form of disputes over the ownership of two cliffs in the Sea of Japan (which the RK started to refer to as the East Sea some time ago) and differing assessments of some facts from the period of the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The reality, however, is that the tension in the bilateral relations is caused by more serious reasons associated with the objective process of the “normalization” of Japan. The world’s third-largest economy cannot forever bear the burden of the restrictions to its statehood imposed 70 years ago by the victors of World War II.
However, the inevitable reinstatement of Japan’s “normality” provokes phobias in both Koreas (and China), the nature of which is barely traceable in the long history. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine at the end of last year was classed by the opponents of Japan as a symbol of the “revival of Japanese militarism”, whilst the fact that he likened, in February 2014, the situation in Europe on the eve of the First World War and the present one in Eastern Asia allowed North Korea’s officials to call Shinzo Abe “Asian Hitler”.
Park Geun-hye, who succeeded Lee Myung-bak as President of South Korea in early 2013, undertook a series of measures (which had rather a symbolic nature) in order to defuse tensions in the relations with Japan. In particular, there has been a decrease in the activity of Korean “comfort women” of the World War II period who have lived to the present day and, in recent years, have been especially pestering both parties with their claims.
However, Park Geun-hye has until recently been quite reticent with regard to both the appeals of the Japanese government to resume negotiations at the highest level and the persistent American urging of both parties in the same direction. The USA finally managed to arrange a meeting between Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit which was held at the end of March 2014 in the Hague. However, the photo that appeared in the world media of the final press conference of the three participants in the meeting showed better than any words that it had not been very productive.
Therefore, it seems quite logical that Japan seeks to improve relations with the DPRK which were virtually suspended in the middle of the last decade. This message of Japan had a positive response from Pyongyang despite all of its angry diatribes regarding certain actions on the part of Tokyo. The first contacts between the senior officials of the foreign ministries took place in November 2012 in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. Formally, the subject of discussion was the fate of about two dozen Japanese nationals abducted by the North-Korean secret services in the 1970s. However, in fact, the talk was probably about the whole range of problems in the bilateral relations.
After a break caused by the sanctions imposed against the DPRK by the UN Security Council after the former conducted a test of a nuclear device in February 2013, such contacts were resumed in the north-east of China, in Shenyang. The series of meetings held in this city in March 2014 turned out to be particularly productive. The Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan evaluated their results as a “positive moment” on the path towards the resumption of negotiations with the DPRK already at the governmental level in order to establish bilateral diplomatic relations.
China is being quite active on the Korean Peninsula as well, pursuing its own strategic goals, which are to prevent the USA and Japan from strengthening their positions on the peninsula. The strength of the China–North Korea relations was confirmed in the course of the implementation of the above-mentioned sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council against the DPRK in March 2013. During the first two months, there were cases when the flow of goods from and to the DPRK was stopped in order to check their compliance with the terms of the sanctions. However, this did not have a negative impact on the totals of the bilateral trade. In 2013, its volume increased by 10.4% compared with 2012, with the growth rate having increased twofold compared with the previous two years (2012 and 2011).
Since the situation in the DPRK is more or less being controlled by Beijing, the development of the relations with the RK acquires special importance. This is facilitated by the above-mentioned tensions in the Japan–South Korea relations. Similar rhetoric is coming from Seoul and Beijing regarding territorial disputes with Tokyo, assessments of the recent history and the “revival of Japanese militarism”.
Japan obviously hoped that the PRC–RK relations were going to deteriorate due to introduction of the so-called Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea by the Ministry of National Defense of the PRC on 23 November 2013. Designed primarily to ensure China’s interests in the region of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese ADIZ has also covered a certain part of the underwater archipelago the ownership of which is claimed by the RK. This was followed by a message from Tokyo to Seoul about the possibility of coordinating the efforts of both countries to counter possible Chinese measures in the ADIZ.
However, Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine that took place a month after the introduction of the Chinese ADIZ, as well as the perseverance with which the PRC’s leadership kept emphasizing that this zone would in no way impinge on the interests of the RK stopped Seoul from making the step anticipated by some experts – shifting its foreign policy course towards Tokyo.
New trends in global and regional policies
It makes sense to touch upon the possible impact on the situation in the Korean Peninsula region and the APR, as a whole, of the new trends in the policies of the leading players, with some of them having emerged literally in recent months. The talk is mainly of a certain revival of the European direction in the US foreign policy. This trend is reflected in particular (and by far not primarily) in the developments in the territory of Ukraine.
Since the strategic course for the “U-turn towards Asia” remains , the strengthening of the European component in the US foreign policy is fraught with its “dichotomy” and too much load on the national potential. It is possible that, first of all, this factor was taken into consideration at the beginning of the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the rigid anti-China rhetoric of Hillary Clinton was replaced by the statements of new Secretary of State John Kerry regarding the need to develop mutually beneficial relations with the PRC.
However, these new nuances in the US–China relations require that the overall tension in Northeast Asia and the APR, as a whole, should be reduced. The indicated requirements are not compatible at all with the continued serious problems in the relations of a key US ally Japan with its neighbors, of which China and the RK are of particular interest to the USA. It looks like this motive has been prevailing in the recent compelling American “advice” urging all Northeast Asia countries, but primarily to Japan, to defuse tensions in the subregion.
Today, it is difficult to predict how events are going to unfold in Northeast Asia and, in particular, around the Korean Peninsula. The factors that bring about a substantial amount of uncertainty to these predictions include not only (and perhaps even not so much) the degree of stability of the above-mentioned trends in the US foreign policy, but the further emergence of China and Japan as the new leading regional players. The above-mentioned uncertainty will be growing due to the obscure character of the development of the Japan–China relations.
Vladimir Terekhov, senior research fellow at the Center for Asia and the Middle East of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.