At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union re-established itself as a major player on the Korean Peninsula largely as a result of U.S. initiatives in dividing the country, for administrative convenience, between two zones of military occupation. In doing so, the Americans displayed great ignorance regarding Moscow’s prior role in Korean affairs and its legitimate security interests, as well as committing policy blunders on a grand scale. The result was Soviet-U.S. conflict and the perpetuation of Korea’s division, setting the stage for the Korean War five years later.
That was 55 years ago, but in some respects it might as well have been yesterday. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang last week once again threatens to turn the peninsula into a theater of Russian-American confrontation. There could be no mistaking the Russian-North Korean communique’s reference to the need to confront “policies of war and aggression” and to build a new “multipolar” international order, making clear that while the Cold War may be over, Russian and U.S. interests continue to collide in Northeast Asia.
The Americans still see a dark cloud hanging over the peninsula in the form of incipient North Korean missile capability, possibly married to a nuclear capability. The Russians profess to see no threat at all, just a mirage. Thus, the Putin-Kim Jong Il summit communique baldly states that North Korean missile program is not threatening (in contrast to the proposed U.S. missile defense system), with the reported offer to give up the missile program altogether for suitable space-rocket assistance demonstrating peaceful intent. So far, however, the Americans aren’t buying.
Moscow has both strategic and political interests at stake in this contest. The 1972 ABM treaty, which limits the development of defensive missiles, is fundamental to preserving the existing strategic balance between the two countries.
The other side of Moscow’s diplomacy vis-a-vis North Korea is to help the former Soviet dependency revive its economic base. It has offered to provide expertise if South Korea provides capital. Russia stands to gain from inter-Korean rapprochement both because it might help it attain the long-sought land corridor to the South and because it might lead to greater South Korean investment in Russia’s Far Eastern provinces.
More broadly, Putin’s visit was designed from the outset with the idea of resurrecting the old Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang axis as a counterweight to perceived U.S. hegemony. In fact, the three already share a visceral opposition to violations of state sovereignty of which they are frequently accused — a charge with obvious resonance since Chinese repression of Falun Gong, Russian military operations in Chechnya and North Korea’s refugee crisis all raise the specter of humanitarian intervention in sovereign affairs.
Finally, Putin and Kim agreed on the need to turn Northeast Asia into a zone of peace by developing mutual cooperation, while also lashing out an international order that provides for real security. There is some consolation, however, that the above powers, along with the United States and Japan, will participate in the upcoming ASEAN regional forum, providing an opportunity for extended discussion on these topics. Paradoxically, while the channels of communication are open wider than ever, narrowing the conceptual divide on fundamental political and security issues in Northeast Asia appears harder than ever.
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