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Late for friendship

George Toloraya on the nuances of the relationship between Russia and the two Koreas

In the context of the rapid development of Russia's relations with China and Japan, many issues raise prospects for cooperation with the countries of the Korean peninsula. Responses to these questions are provided by EastRussia Executive Director of the National Committee for BRICS Research, Director of the Center for Asian Strategy of Russia at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Georgy Toloraya, Professor at the Department of Oriental Studies at the MGIMO Department of International Relations.

Late for friendship
Photo: Attila JANDI / Shutterstock, Inc.
- How will relations between the DPRK and South Korea develop in the foreseeable future?
- It is not necessary to expect that the problems existing between the two countries can be solved at once. Their permission will take a very long time. And, however, the relationship between North and South Korea will always be difficult. The more I observe them, the more I come to the conclusion that these two countries are unlikely to be able to unite in one centralized state. It can only be about some degree of good or bad relations between them. And now - about the fact that they somehow adjusted them and ceased to feud.

- And the fact that their peoples are related does not serve as a strong positive factor?
- Now the citizens of North and South Korea are completely different people. This is manifested, for example, in morality, mentality, material support. And even seen physically. The difference between citizens of the countries of the Korean Peninsula in terms of lifestyle and mentality is greater today than among any other neighboring countries in Asia - the same Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Despite the fact that they have genetics in common. It is for this reason that I do not think that thanks to the sudden unification of the DPRK and South Korea, it will become better. This process should occur more than smoothly.

- Does all this affect the development of the situation on the peninsula?
- I will say that the desire to unite the two countries is an incomplete gestalt, an impossible future. The behavior of both ordinary people and leaders really needs to be understood as something like a dream of a bright future, but not as a guide to action. Indeed, in fact, South Korea wants simply to seize the North - to occupy its territory and impose its own order there. Of course, supposedly guided only by good intentions. But at the same time, trying to create, thanks to the absorption of the DPRK, a state that could fully compete with other powers in the region, including Japan.

"But is it possible?"
- Here it is necessary to understand perfectly well that such a unification - through the seizure of the DPRK by South Korea - will have truly catastrophic consequences. That is why the citizens of North Korea today are not ready for instant unification with South Korea. Indeed, due to the true motivation of the North Koreans with regard to the DPRK, it will lead to the fact that the most educated and possessing valuable skills part of the population will be out of work at all. And the development of events will not be long in coming - a guerrilla war will simply begin. Because, in turn, then old grievances against each other - so characteristic of the entire history of Korea, will be immediately remembered. And the South Koreans do not want to "feed" the northerners at all, that is, to reduce the standard of living for their well-being.

- Are their inhabitants so rancorous?
- Yes, this is the place to be - in Confucian countries as a whole. Here people remember the insults of even a thousand years ago. Moreover, the life plan itself is due to the conflicts of the ancestors, the bad reputation of some of them, the former belonging to different clans. It sounds ridiculous, but by Korean standards it happened not far in the past, but more recently. In addition, we must not forget that during the years of the split on both sides, many people have died. Thus, the two nations are each other in a spirit today, to put it mildly, with great pretensions, no matter how publicly they swear "fraternal love."

- Simple people are not ready to unite. And the elite?
- As a rule, the proactive actions of the authorities of the South exert their influence on the development of relations between countries, the North often reacts to them. Although the South Koreans consider their actions "a response to the provocative behavior of the North." Here and now: the DPRK is hiding, not exacerbating the situation, waiting to see how the political crisis in South Korea will end and how the Trump administration will behave. The DPRK's arsenal includes provocations, demonstrations of military force, or, after another lull, the opportunity to test some new version of cooperation. However, which option will be chosen depends largely on the behavior of Seoul. Thus, the determining factor this year will be who will soon come to power in South Korea and how Seoul's relations with Washington will be built. Personally, I very much hope that any next administration of South Korea will be much more realistic than the completely blinkered and ultra-conservative former administration of Park Geun-hye, which completely unreasonably believed that North Korea would take and fall apart in an outlandish way. Why, even now she continues to bend this line when Park Geun-hye is no longer in business! I hope that the new administration, whether it is from the opposition or from the current ruling camp, will look for ways to cooperate.

- What can be the role of Russia in the restoration of relations between the DPRK and South Korea?
- The role of our country in relations between the two Koreas should be to encourage the tendencies towards cooperation of both countries. And also - in condemning these or those provocations of each. After all, in essence, Russia can not do much here - as a result of the fact that the two Koreans do not want any mediation in their relations. At the same time, each of the countries is trying to drag Russia over to its side. Russia has the right approach to them. Let it be with varying success, but it makes every effort to avoid a one-sided position, to promote the rapprochement of both states and to develop cooperation with both, and even - a trilateral format.

- What is a bad one-sided position?
- I'll give you an example. In Soviet times, Russia did not recognize South Korea, the DPRK put forward claims to it in any contacts with the South, and even more so did not allow any ties to be developed. But by the 70s it became clear that such a position does not meet our interests and the interests of stability in the Far East. In turn, during the 1990s, our country, on the contrary, curtailed all contacts with the DPRK. As a result, North Korea interpreted this behavior as nothing more than going over to the side of South Korea, and it did not bring any benefit to Russia itself. What our country came to at the end of the 90s - the policy of "standing on two legs" on the Korean Peninsula - is the most optimal. This is how Russia shows its neutrality, defends its interests and supports what, in its understanding, is fair and correct. This policy, which has been going on for a decade and a half, could be more active. Because, frankly, the Russian political leadership never reaches the Korean Peninsula.

- So, does not it need to build a friendship with Russia with South Korea?
- It's not about friendship - although we and the Koreans have a fairly good attitude towards each other, because we have never fought, there are no special historical problems, there is sincere respect. But the Republic of Korea cooperates when it is interesting for it and in what is beneficial for it. This, for example, is directly evidenced by the fact that, no matter how “friends” with Russia, in the UN it almost always votes against us, but together with the Americans. Today she is a military and political ally of the United States. Another proof was that the Republic of Korea, despite the protests of China and Russia, is hosting American anti-missile systems, to which we will have to react. And Russia's relations with South Korea depend on relations with the United States, and not on how, contrary to popular belief, how our country behaves with the DPRK.

- The fact that North Korea has become a nuclear power, although not recognized, changes something?
- The fact that North Korea became the owner of a nuclear weapon is a major diplomatic failure, including the failure of American diplomacy. Ever since the 1990s, under the influence primarily of South Korean experts supported by the US, the United States and South Korea assumed that the North Korean regime would soon fall. Although this was rather doubtful, Russian experts were constantly talking about this. Regardless of whether someone likes it or not, the regime exists and nothing will happen to it.

- The DPRK as a nuclear country is dangerous not only to South Korea, but also to the world, including Russia. And does any DPRK have any negative impact on Russia?
- Of course. It is about its military provocations, but mainly - the matter in raising the degree of tension in the Far East. Contradictions between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea in various ways prevent Russia from developing multilateral projects of pan-Asian significance. But if South Korea still somehow restrains the framework of generally accepted norms of international behavior, then you can not say anything about the North.

We can say that today North Korea for Russia is a "locked" door in its East. Indeed, in fact, the DPRK is the only state with which Russia borders in the East by land with access to the ocean. Well, there are both China and Mongolia, but they are continental countries that are busy solving their internal problems and are oriented inland. In order to penetrate further into the APR, the Korean Peninsula is a springboard for Russia.
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