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Time for a New Approach in North Asia

Jun 05, 2024
  • Warwick Powell

    Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Senior Fellow at Beijing Taihe Institute

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend the business summit at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry on May 27, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via REUTERS)

The recent China-Japan-Republic of Korea leadership trilateral summit in Seoul focused squarely on trade promotion and the promotion of collaboration in other areas of relatively low-hanging fruit. But thornier issues continue to dog relations between these three North Asia nations. Some of these issues have derailed previous efforts

On the economic collaboration front, the participants recommitted to move stalled negotiations forward on a free trade agreement, aiming to hasten the resolution of an FTA that is “free, fair, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial.” In a joint statement, their three leaders also affirmed support for the World Trade Organization: “We will continue to work to ensure a global level playing field to foster a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, inclusive, and predictable trade and investment environment.” At a time when the escalation of trade wars and talk of sanctions and tariffs dominate the public discourse, the position of these Asian neighbors stands in stark contrast.

If extending free liberalization is low-hanging fruit, other issues in the region seem rather more intractable. The history of Japanese war atrocities and failure to atone remain unhealed wounds for both Korea and China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine a decade ago led to the cancellation of talks. Then, in 2016 and 2017, Korea’s decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, or THAAD, on its territory disrupted planned trilateral talks. A territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands remains unresolved, and Japan’s recent statements concerning Taiwan are sure to increase tensions, rather than ease them.

Both Japan and the ROK have recently intensified their military alignment with the United States. The U.S. has long maintained military bases and personnel in both countries, and recent moves have not been well-received in Beijing. Such moves, in other words, contribute to increasing tensions rather than defusing them. However, the long-running Okinawa objections to expanding the U.S. military presence is an unwanted reality for both Japanese and American leaders. Nothing is smooth sailing.

The shadow of North Korea also hangs over regional relationships. While Japan and the ROK continue to push for sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in various United Nations forums, China appears to no longer see ongoing sanctions as a purposeful — let alone effective — approach.

Changing global and local dynamics open up the possibility — and perhaps a window — for leadership that seeks to shift the status quo. These include:

• On March 28, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the panel of experts responsible for monitoring DPRK compliance or violations. In effect, the sanctions regime has begun to unravel. No doubt, some nations will continue the practice of sanctions. But without UN-endorsed enforcement, the sanctions regime is likely to progressively fall apart. The fact that Russia not only coped with a barrage of Western sanctions and emerged with a stronger economy only gives confidence and encouragement to others.

• The DPRK has nuclear weapons and advanced hypersonic delivery capabilities. In the past, economic sanctions were aimed at mitigating the risk that Pyongyang would gain this capability. That bird has flown.

• The DPRK has formally abandoned its policy of reunification. Many interpret this as a provocation, although perhaps it opens a window for engagement that is no longer hamstrung by this precondition.

• The DPRK has developed relations with Russia that in effect create channels for access to the global economy. Not only does this create opportunities for the DPRK to acquire technologies, it also opens up pathways for increased trade. Trade holds the potential of economic development. It’s unlikely that a DPRK-Russia relationship of the sort that is currently emerging has been pursued without the knowledge of China’s leaders.

Russia and China have also consolidated their strategic relationship in many significant ways. I will mention only two: First is the exchange of military technology, providing China with access to Russia’s more advanced hypersonic capabilities. Second, Russia’s Pacific Coast naval resources — not just the vessels but the Kamchatka Peninsula base — provide another opportunity by which the First Island Chain is bypassed and for China to project its defenses into the Pacific.

Japan and South Korea continue to condemn the DPRK for its nuclear weapons program and want to pressure Pyongyang toward denuclearization. China, on the other hand, is more focused on shaping a political settlement to the tensions on the Korean Peninsula without raising the precondition or need for denuclearization. A denuclearized peninsula would doubtless bring comfort to most concerned, but is unrealistic today.

Resolving the instabilities on the Korean Peninsula is central to the security of the region as a whole. The economic interdependency brought about through increasingly open trade is a useful contribution but needs to be buttressed by efforts on non-economic issues. Whereas traditional “realists” suggest that security and prosperity are either/or choices, the challenge for global and regional leadership is to imagine different possibilities. These need to recognize the limitations of historic approaches, adopt a sober assessment of existing realities and begin with a commitment to positive peacemaking, rather than mere deterrence.

Deterrence delivers, at best, a negative peace. It is fraught with built-in risks of escalation and further destabilization. This is precisely what has happened. The risks and dangers in the region are higher today as a result.

It is a positive peace, one that weaves prosperity and security together and the security of each party is indivisible from the security of the other, is the challenge du jure. The DPRK’s abandonment of its formal policy of reunification and its new meaningful economic outlet to the world via Russia are potential game changers that could be utilized, by effective diplomacy, to reframe the future possibilities for the Korean Peninsula, and with it impact the trilateral dynamics of China, Japan and the ROK.

Are regional leaders ready to take up the challenge of a positive peace?

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