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Japan and Russia: Two Players Too-Many in the North Korean Nuclear Standoff [ 2005.10.31 ]

When several people get together and try and create something yet fail, the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ can be whipped out and used lightly as a criticism. Another proverb ‘too many chiefs, not enough Indians’ can also be levelled accordingly. The sentiment being that having numerous players in a particular process is not always beneficial. Despite, perhaps, the best intentions of the participants, attempts to ‘fix a fantastic meal’ or to ‘attack a posse of cowboys’ can come unstuck through confusion and lack of understanding. Basically you have too many people calling the shots and not enough people firing the rifles. This is exactly the case in the six nation talks currently being conducted around the issue of North Korea developing nuclear weapons. Why does there need to be six individual and independent nation states dealing with what is essentially a trilateral problem between the superpower America, its ally the Republic of Korea, and one of the last bastions of communism, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

Let’s get the first issue out of the way, the People’s Republic of China. Whilst the regimes of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il may have garnered few friends in the international arena, China is one country they have always been able to look to at least as a geo-strategic ally if not an out and out brother. With both nations being born out of the same Marxist ideology it is an obvious relationship and one that has served North Korea well down the years. Its not surprising that the DPRK should want China present at the diplomatic table since it should rightly feel outnumbered by the partnership between its southern neighbour ROK and the United States. In fact the four nations are paralleled perfectly. North Korea is to China as South Korea is to the US, small yet significant pockets of society representing their own interests in the world scheme of politics. In fact historically Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone have a right to feel like pawns in a global game of communism versus democratic capitalism. The Korea War is the epitome of such and unlike in Vietnam, the two ideologies here came to a stalemate. The artillery and tanks given to the South were matched seemingly pound for pound with the guns and armoured vehicles the North received from their own benefactor, cancelling out any chance of one side claiming victory. Whilst the ROK may have kept much stronger political and military ties with the US then the North did with China, the DPRK has shown an ability to guard its own borders but perhaps rather more significantly, an inability to perform its own diplomacy. This strikes right at the heart of why China must be involved in the nuclear non-proliferation talks, simply because the DPRK is too inept or too uncompromising in its stance with the outside world, namely America or the west in general, to deal with the other parties by itself. With respect to the nation it is like the DPRK needs China to hold its hand or at the very least put an arm around its shoulder and say “Hey, you’ll be alright, we’re here with you”. So one can easily see a balance at the discussion table whereby the DPRK has China in its corner and the ROK has the US to lend a hand similarly. The beauty of China’s involvement is two fold however, because one must not forget that China and the US have their own relationship that by coincidence helps in this situation. Since China and the US are in agreement on seeing a nuclear-free Korean peninsular and have found consensus over the ‘war on terror’ they can trust each other over the issue of a nuclear-free North Korea. China can act as a perfect mediator ensuring the DPRK that propositions put forward by the US are fair and to be regarded without suspicion. Given this square relationship, four nations addressing the finer points of the matter at hand, why should any other party feel obliged to force themselves into this particular arena?

Looking next at Russia one can see nothing but a grand-standing opportunity for the Kremlin to flex its diplomatic muscle in an attempt to the show the region and the rest of the world it is still a strong and influential member of the international community. Why on earth should Russia fear North Korea in terms of military hardware? Whilst some scholars argue that a DPRK equipped with nuclear weapons spells trouble for Russia’s interests in North Asia, it is doubtful Vladimir Putin the Russian president lies awake at night worrying that Kim Jong-il is planning on invading outer Siberia. Really Russia just wishes to be seen as an important figure but in actual fact is surplus to diplomatic requirements in this case. No one can doubt Russia’s sincerity in wishing to avert a nuclear war by stabilising the Korean peninsula but its involvement is arguably less about peace building and more about looking to sure up its future economic ties with North Asia. This leads us to the one nation left unaccounted for in the so-called six-nation process, Japan.

Japan’s position in the Asia-Pacific political scene is quite unique. Yes, it is along with the US one of the richest two nations, but unlike in America’s case for Japan this does not translate to power. For all the talk of money making the world go around, and indeed it does, it is the iron fist, military muscle, whatever you want to call it, that actually makes one nation stand up and take notice of another. It is for this reason Japan comes unstuck in diplomatic issues circling around military actions. How can a nation that was forced to draft into its constitution an article prohibiting the use of aggressive military force present itself as a deterrent against another state that knows only the ‘Art of War’? Surely the DPRK can take some comfort from knowing that for all Japan’s words and threats of economic sanctioning there is virtually no physical harm it can impart upon its mainland neighbour. Unlike 70-odd years ago when Japan boldly declared its intentions to permanently occupy the Korean peninsula, today it would not dare to step foot across the Japan/East Sea in any arms-bearing capacity. This is surely an excellent if rare situation in international relations where two unfriendly neighbours would seemingly never come to war because of an official self-enforced constitutional law by one never to do so. The great problem is that the DPRK, or perhaps more specifically its leaders, cannot seem to believe that Japan is bound by its own duty to never again be an aggressive country militarily. Kim Jong-il lives with the perpetual notion that ‘once bitten twice shy’. Japan invaded once before in recent history, how on earth can they sincerely be trusted to never invade again? They are great friends of the DPRK’s ideological nemesis the US, and they are prospering economically while the DPRK is languishing in famines and droughts. North Korea has good reason to feel resentful to its island neighbour and therefore quite understandably would not be best pleased being told what it can and cannot do by Japan. The DPRK does not tell Japan where and when it can build nuclear power stations, and if you believe the North’s intentions for nuclear power is solely for peaceful purposes then why should Japan be able to dictate similar terms to them? It is for these types of questions that Japan perhaps should disassociate itself with the ‘six-nation talks’. It is unrealistic to expect this to happen now that the process has been ongoing for some time but one could argue that the whole process and indeed the end result may have been or will be more productive if Japan had not leapt to the side of the US and the ROK governments. It really has thrown an imbalance in the power structure across the negotiating table because where the DPRK and PRC are matched evenly by the ROK and the US, the addition of Japan sees a huge diplomatic advantage come to the democratic nations, the ideological bloc that the DPRK is so dismissive of. The pressure is piled back onto Kim Jong-il and his Generals since it dramatically alters the political landscape from a relatively even standpoint to one heavily in favour of ‘western attitudes’. The USSR’s fall from grace in the late 1980s only serves to further lend weight against the beleaguered North Koreans’ attitude to social and political values, and if you asked Vladimir Putin honestly which end of his nation is he more concerned with, the money making Euro-centric west based in Moscow or the virtually uninhabited tundra Siberia, that is connected to the DPRK by a mere section of river, I think the answer would be pretty clear. North Korea cannot expect Russia to support its own cause in the way the ROK can expect political assistance from Japan. After all, Russia abandoned communism, the very pillar Kim Jong-il still holds so dear, even if in a corrupt twisted form of ascension to power. South Korea and Japan may too have their differences but the stretch of water between the two nations is much smaller in nature than the great rift dividing the Korean peninsula. The ROK may even be grateful of Japans insistence of participating in the six-nation talks but ultimately an imbalance is always in danger of failing. While the region holds its breath at the outcome, which as of two weeks ago was looking decidedly more positive than at any other stage of the talks, there is something to be said for simple dialogue. Why have many voices crossing each other when two equal sides will suffice? One hopes for the sake of peace in North Asia that not too many subsidiary parties speak over the top of one another, drowning out the main voices and causing confusion and a lack of understanding. It is a time for only four ‘Chiefs’ to direct the action making sure the message is loud, clear, and simple; “Indians, put your bows and arrows away and bring out the peace-pipe!”


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