Ex-ambassadors to Seoul Advise It to Change


G. A. Ivashentsov and Shin Beom-shik, eds., Bezopasnost’ i Sotrudnichestvo v Severo-Vostochnoi Azii: Sovmestnyi Dokument Rossiiskikh i Iuzhnokoreiskikh Ekspertov (Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia: Joint Document of Russian and South Korean Experts) (Moscow: Spetskniga, 2015)

Muto Masatoshi, Nikkan Tairitsu no Shinso (The True Face of the Opposition between Japan and South Korea) (Tokyo: Goku shuppan, 2015)

Two recent ambassadors to the Republic of Korea—Gleb A. Ivashentsov and Muto Masatoshi— published far-reaching assessments in 2015 on how their countries would prefer bilateral relations to develop. Ivashentsov headed a group of Russia authors in a joint project with South Korea, setting forth their views minus the views of the Koreans on how bilateral ties should go forward. Muto reflected on his long career of service in Seoul, giving guidance on how bilateral ties should proceed. In this review article, I focus on what each sees as the bilateral challenge in foreign relations and is recommending that Seoul should do, while I also suggest what can be gleaned through a juxtaposition of the viewpoints from two great powers now leaning to either China or the United States. Neither power has been at all satisfied with Seoul’s foreign policy, especially with its approach to bilateral cooperation on Northeast Asian policies. These books offer guidance on recent pressure on Seoul.

In this two-sided review article, I ask: 1) taking these books as representative, what do the mainstreams under Putin and under Abe seek from the Park administration? 2) what assumptions drive the thinking of powers being marginalized by the Sino-US split in East Asia toward the country they see as on the front lines; and 3)what should we make of comparisons between Japan and Russia on the eve of Seoul, at last, cutting a deal with Japan and emphatically disappointing Russia? Below, I raise certain comparisons to set the stage for a separate look at each of the two volumes.


Comparisons of the Two Books

Ivashentsov in 2005 and Muto in 2010 went to Seoul at a time their countries were anticipating a new and closer era in relations only to leave in more troubling times. Each put relations in the mid-2010s in a broad regional or historical framework, seeking a sharp, about-face from Seoul’s recent disregard of his state’s appeals. In seeking a revival of the momentum during what some had seen as a golden age of forward-looking relations, they place all of the blame on the South Korean side for not sticking to the anticipated script. In 2007-2008, Russia was expecting triangularity with North Korea as the Six-Party Talks seemed to be progressing well. In 2010-2011, Japan was expecting triangularity with the United States as South Koreans leaned to Japan over China as well as to the United States, capping this in March 2011 with a strong show of sympathy with the victims of the Fukushima disaster. Subsequently, however, hopes for Seoul were dashed on both sides for reasons that were blamed on South Korean diplomacy as well as South Korean domestic forces—for Muto, the constitutional court, NGOS, and two presidents in succession were at fault; for the Russian authors, the legacy of Cold War thought has interfered with recognition of the regional architecture awaiting construction. High hopes were dashed for both.

For Russia, trilateralism with South and North Korea was, perhaps, the last gasp of a regional policy not focused on close ties to China. Park has been disappointing, but in light of her “trustpolitik” claims to welcome ties with North Korea under certain circumstances and Eurasian Economic Initiative toward Russia keeping trilateralism alive as an objective, Ivashentsov could keep pressing for revival of the agenda from a decade ago. For Japan, trilateralism with the United States and South Korea did not advance as desired under Park, but hopes that it would drop historical criticisms—the “comfort women” issue first of all—were sustained at times by US pressure on Park. The Russian authors could capitalize on Chinese pressure on Seoul to change course, while the Japanese side could count on US pressure on Seoul to do so.

Reading recent Russian and Japanese publications on South Korea, which reflect the thinking of those driving national identity narratives in each country, points to a state under considerable pressure. Russians implicitly threaten with their approach leaning toward Pyongyang’s outlook, as Japanese ride the coattails of Washington in insisting that Seoul will be isolated if it does not make a firm choice for a triangular alliance over a “honeymoon” with China. Neither side weighs Seoul’s agency highly. Muto, however, sees Seoul looking for a way forward, anticipating correctly that 2015 would prove to be a critical year, while the Russian authors fail to anticipate that North Korea’s actions would eviscerate their plans, lessening any prospect for a North-South-Russian deal. In a short span from December 28, 2015 to February 6, 2016, Muto’s agenda proved to be realistic, given strong US support for it, while Ivashentsov’s was exposed as at odds with the reality in the region, as North Korea again showed its true intentions. Yet, Muto’s concerns about the emotional roots of Korean thinking are still relevant.


The Russian Argument

Commemorating 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Moscow and Seoul specialists through the Russian Council on International Affairs and the Institute of Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Research of Seoul National University offered their assessments of what has been achieved and what remains to be done with emphasis on unrealized potential cooperation in Northeast Asia for constraining both traditional and new challenges and threats. The abstract stressed the need for a system of security based on a network of multi-sided partnerships—in energy, transport, production, and security for international information and the utilization of atomic energy. This echoes repeated Russian calls for a new regional order, setting aside the US-led alliance system and preempting but overlapping with a broader China-led hub and spokes system. Yet, it rests heavily on the inclusion of North Korea, in ways seen as counterproductive in South Korea. Omitting the South Korean articles, which presumably had been sought to make a joint case, the Russian coverage is uncompromising in insisting on a new regional order.

The Russian side appealed for a strategic partnership that reaches beyond bilateral ties to joint efforts to resolve regional tensions, referring to the main cause not as North Korea in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and belligerent move but as the persistent standoff on the peninsula and the need for a fundamental reconstruction of the security system in the region to take into account the security interests of four great powers. With these goals in mind, Russians called for ending the isolation of North Korea, making it a full-fledged participant in international exchanges. They seek Korean agreement that it is time for a peace conference through the United Nations to replace the 1953 armistice agreement and for regional partnerships to be formed dealing with concrete aspects of security.

A brief preface by the Korean side described a complex set of changes across the region, referred to Japan’s desire to become a “normal state” as arousing negative reactions, and noted Russia’s troubled relations with the West and its eagerness to advance relations in Northeast Asia—the new center of world politics and economy. This preface doubted that ROK-Russian relations have yet reached the stage of strategic cooperation but welcomed the quest for a regional security system. Recalling meetings over a quarter century on strategic cooperation between the two states, it concluded that experts from the two sides have kept repeating their own views and not paid much attention to those of the other side. As for the new materials in this book, the Koreans see a lack of full correspondence in views and even refer to some positions in contradiction to each other, but express hope for studying possible compromises to overcome conflicting interests and opinions. These sentiments may have emboldened the Russian side, but gave it little substantive overlap.

The two sides differ in how they characterize the key problems of Northeast Asia. For the Russians it is a struggle for leadership and spheres of influence that causes conflict, while energy security is a big problem too. They point to a tendency for Sino-US confrontation as threatening the interests of Seoul and Moscow, claiming that Russia has returned to the international arena as a strong state without which no significant international problem can be solved, and South Korea has risen as a strong economic power that is trying to be an influential, autonomous player in the foreign affairs arena. Recalling that leaders of the two states have often declared that their positions are the same, they cite this as a reason that they can form a bilateral nexus in a multipolar world and in the formation of a balanced system for multi-sided security in Northeast Asia, replacing Cold War security architecture and the US alliance system. This approach minimizes North Korea’s threats as if they are no more than a temporary byproduct of the absence of a regional security framework and a balance of forces reassuring to Pyongyang. It proposes a special role for Russo-ROK relations as the foundation for regional security, dismissing the value of the ROK-US alliance. Also dismissed is Seoul’s diplomacy with Beijing as of no salience in dealing with Pyongyang or finding common ground in Sino-US relations. Implicit is the message that Moscow is using its relations with Pyongyang and Beijing to insist on its own approach to regional security, which puts pressure on Seoul to acquiesce or discover that Moscow will stand in the way of the goals it is seeking with Washington and Tokyo. Moscow is the assertive party, demanding that Seoul change course in these exchanges.

The thrust of the Russian argument to Seoul is to move quickly to improve bilateral ties to Pyongyang. Normalization of North-South relations appears as a kind of panacea that would change the North’s calculations and, somehow, even lead to denuclearization. By praising the Sunshine Policy,” including the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Russians are insisting that it did not go far enough, ignoring arguments that it has funded dangerous nuclear and missile programs that put South Korea at greater risk. Failure of the Six-Party Talks is blamed vaguely on not all participants being prepared to do what was needed for success, leaving Pyongyang’s responsibility unclear. Avoid any actions that could increase tensions (regardless of what North Korea does), help the North escape from its isolation, promote its socio-economic rise, and make it a full participant in international exchange is the advice Russians offer. A confident North Korea will be a more reliable partner is the essence of their argument with no evidence to refute divergent arguments based on the record of recent decades. South Koreans are told that Russia is the foremost supporter of North-South relations, backing this goal with large projects to link the two Koreas. The emphasis on is on a grand deal embracing North Korea without mention of demands on North Korea or recognition of its record of threats and provocations. South Korea would be expected to rely on guarantees from the great powers, including Russia, as if it is so weak that this is its only escape from the dangerous environment it faces.

Russian authors stress “trust” as what is needed, citing as a model the trust built between Russia and Western Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s through the construction of gas pipelines between them and large industrial enterprises in the USSR—actions that did not halt the intensification of the Cold War and left other countries subject to pressure if they did not satisfy Moscow’s wishes, but nothing of this sort is mentioned. Welcoming Park Geun-hye’s appeal for increased trust (trustpolitik) without acknowledging how she insisted that trust be established, the authors focus on taking the military and political interests of the various states into account in forging a comprehensive security framework as if that is the sole path to trust. Throughout, the Russian side treats regulation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula as inseparable from establishment of a shared system of security across Northeast Asia. The assumption is that North Korea will be on board, and Moscow and Seoul can together become the driving forces in convincing the others.   

The list of authors has 12 Russian names—Georgy Toloraya and Aleksandr Vorontsov are two who are well known for writing on the Korean Peninsula—and many other heavyweights on the Russian scene ready to present a concerted position. What makes this a joint document is hard to determine. In no way can readers detect how exchanges with South Koreans have moderated Russian positions on what has to be done to resolve problems on the Korean Peninsula and to transform the security architecture in Northeast Asia. This project has served as a platform for Russians to set forth their narrative.


The Japanese Argument

Muto finds South Koreans so obsessed with historical consciousness—most of all the “comfort women” issue—that they fail to recognize both economic and strategic realities. They ignore the cooperation provided by Japan for Korea’s development in the period after normalization in 1965, the substantial role of Japanese parts in the products Koreans export from South Korea and China (making the bilateral trade volume a deceptively low indicator of the significance of their economic ties), and the remarkable potential for increased economic ties (as South Korean youth with their impressive skills join Japanese firms and both sides use Japan’s advanced technology in macro-projects around the world. On the strategic side, Muto also places great weight on Japan’s importance for South Korean security and the need for much closer triangularity including the United States. History must not get in the way of these two vital areas of cooperation, he concludes. Yet, while complaining of the downward spiral of “scolding” Korean diplomacy that arouses “hate Korea,” he sees a way forward, which realistically anticipated what actually occurred in 2015.

By turning attention away from history, Muto is confident that shared interests will prevail. Unlike the Russian book’s silence about the price Russia has paid for recent ties, Muto observes that South Korea has damaged Japan’s international image and that both sides have lost from their falling out. His appeal is for more accurate news on Japan, rejecting charges of militarism and recognizing more reasons for feeling grateful to it. If Russians treat the fruits of WWII as a given that South Koreans must accept as a starting point, Muto insists that the 1965 normalization is a given that must be retained as the foundation of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. While in Russian thinking Roh Moo-hyun was the leader who best fulfilled its expectations, Muto cites Kim Dae-jung in his 1998 approach to Japan as a positive precedent. In his own effort to advance forward-looking relations and realize a new era in Japan-ROK ties, Muto was building on this earlier success. Furthermore, he points to the way anti-Japan and hate Korea sentiments feed off of each other. If the two sides working together can reach an agreement on how to handle the “comfort women” issue, he foresees a refocusing on the future along with an atmosphere in which a more balanced understanding of the past can be achieved. Missing from this view is any concern about how Japanese revisionists are provoking Koreans over history.

Muto may go too far in asserting that Seoul is leaning to China or that it is putting ties to China and the United States on an equal plane, but in calling for it to support a Japan-US-ROK regional security framework he is reinforcing arguments prevalent in the South Korean security community. He is trying to stop in its tracks a downward spiral rooted in historical consciousness with wider implications. In this respect, he is in contrast with the Russians, who feign ignorance of China’s huge role in regional security and, in trying to redirect Seoul’s foreign policy away from the United States and Japan, contradict the security thinking that has long held sway in the country. The ambassadors have conflicting objectives. As Washington vigorously reinforces Muto’s triangular message, and Beijing keeps its distance from Ivashentsov’s new security framework message, even if there is overlap in what it has been seeking, the odds were stacked in favor of Muto’s proposed agenda as a realistic way forward.

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