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The West is trying to understand Russia's policy in the Asia-Pacific region
About the role of Russia in the Asia-Pacific region, about the obvious and hidden motives for its behavior with the southeastern "neighbors", writes The Diplomat
On January 6, 2016, the North Korean media announced the successful tests of a hydrogen bomb in the DPRK, which, as expected, caused a storm of protests and censure around the world, however, the extremely harsh criticism from Russia of such a defiant act by the DPRK aroused particular interest.
In the same vein, Russian diplomats spoke out in communication with their colleagues from the USA, Japan and South Korea. Russia does not rule out the possibility of supporting tougher international sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime.
Russia's tough reaction to the threatening actions of North Korea, at least for some time, suspended the trajectory of the development of a closer partnership between Russia and the DPRK, once cemented by joint military exercises, one of the first in Vladimir Putin's political career with a visit to the DPRK, as well as an announcement years of friendship between Russia and the DPRK. Russia's reaction to information about the testing of a hydrogen bomb in the DPRK, which led to a change in Russia's attitude, can be explained by two factors. First, Russia is trying to strengthen its relationship with Japan to get rid of its growing economic dependence on China. Second, Russia believes that the role of a mediator in resolving problems on the territory of the Korean Peninsula will help to strengthen its international status.
Reorientation to Japan
While Western analysts often portray the ties between Russia and North Korea as a sign of a renewed Soviet-era alliance, the current partnership has so far been significantly more limited and operational in nature than the Cold War partnership. Vladimir Putin's decision to strengthen diplomatic relations with North Korea was a direct response to Western sanctions. As a counter to international isolation, Russia turned to the Asia-Pacific region and literally began to stamp alliances with anti-Western authoritarian regimes in developing countries around the world.
As noted by The DiplomatDespite the fact that North Korea has officially declared the establishment of partnership with Russia as a diplomatic triumph, this alliance does not have a solid economic foundation. Andrei Lankov, one of the world's leading experts on North Korea, is confident that assuring Russia to increase trade to $ 1 billion by 2020 is just a symbolic gesture, since North Korea simply has nothing to offer Russia economically. In turn, it is obvious that Russia simply cannot compete with China's investment opportunities in the development of the DPRK economy.
Since North Korea represents more than a staging ground in the Asia-Pacific region with bad investments for Russia, the DPRK's recent defiant behavior has forced Putin to turn his attention to all other existing and potential partners. Russia is diligently avoiding the possibility of becoming economically dependent on China, and also has a clear fear of the possibility of China's economic hegemony in the Russian Far East, so Putin is trying to use the general fear of North Korean aggression in order to ease tensions with Japan. Russian-Japanese relations in recent years have been ambiguous, since, firstly, Japan did not approve of Russia's military activity in Ukraine, and secondly, it introduced a sanctions regime against Russia, plus it has been conducting long-term disputes over the territorial affiliation of the Kuril Islands. As a result, trade between Russia and Japan fell by 2015 percent in 30, a negative symptom for Russian politicians looking for new markets for their oil and gas.
Despite long-standing disagreements, Putin's strategy to counter North Korea's military buildup appears to resonate with the Japanese leadership. The vice-president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, Masahiko Komura, paid an official visit to Moscow after the DPRK announced its nuclear tests in the country. As a result of talks with Russian officials, Komura called for cooperation to develop a strategy to tighten the provisions of the UN Security Council resolution in order to force North Korea to abandon further nuclear tests. Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also noted that Shinzo Abe may pay an official visit to Russia in the near future. This is a clear positive indicator of a change in relations between the two countries, despite the fact that after Dmitry Medvedev's provocative visit to the Kuril Islands in August 2015, diplomatic relations between the two countries cooled.
Confirming the outlined positive changes in relations, in his statement on January 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia and Japan want peace on the Korean Peninsula. This will serve "the development of fruitful cooperation in the field of trade, as well as the development of economic and financial relationships." However, despite the peacekeeping statements, Japan is not going to retreat from Western agreements in the near future and lift or weaken anti-Russian sanctions. Nevertheless, the warming of relations as a result of joint actions to ensure security in Northeast Asia could move the negotiations on a historic document signed at the end of World War II and resolve the issue with the Kuril Islands.
On January 11, Komura expressed support for the idea of peace talks. A successful diplomatic resolution of the long-term conflict will be a major victory for Putin, which could become a turning point in strengthening the country's diplomatic position in the Asian region, and will also help increase Japan's investment in the development of Russia's Siberian region, rich in energy and natural resources.
Russia as a potential intermediary
From the experience of past crises, China had to take on the role of mediator to reduce the aggravation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, noted significant improvements in relations between the South Korean republic and China. Her appeal to China to impose penalties against the DPRK can be regarded as a litmus test to test the success of her diplomatic efforts. However, China's desire to insulate itself from a possible refugee crisis on its own borders, which is likely if the stability of the DPRK's position is violated, as well as the need to limit the regional influence of the United States and Japan in the region, are deterring factors for China, preventing the full introduction of any or tough measures against the DPRK, believes The Diplomat.
Even if China will bury its eyes on all the previously mentioned strategic fears and try to impose sanctions or threaten the DPRK with any measures, these measures are unlikely to serve as a long-term deterrent. Kim Jong-un is making efforts to convince the DPRK residents of the DPRK's independence from China, despite the country's economic dependence on Beijing. The activities of China in relation to the DPRK after the announcement of the latter on the conduct of nuclear tests, can put the cooperation of the two countries in jeopardy, said Kim Jong-un.
In this context, Russia, the second most important strategic partner of the DPRK, had the opportunity to play the role of a mediator in resolving the conflict. At a time when improved relations between China and South Korea have led to a cooling of the former's relations with the DPRK, Russia is showing greater skill in maintaining balance in relations with both North and South Korea. Although Russia has stepped up its military cooperation with North Korea after the annexation of Crimea, South Korea has refused to join the Western sanctions regime against Russia. South Korea's lofty statements about the inviolability of Ukraine's territory are reminiscent of China's rhetorical statements about Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. South Korea has left unchanged the visa-free regime established in November 2013 and continues to develop cooperation with Russia in the field of heavy industry and the air navigation industry.
The Russian news agency TASS, after reporting on Lavrov's talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Ben Se, said that South Korean experts expressed confidence that Russia would initiate sanctions against North Korea. However, Russia's role as a potential mediator in the Korean Peninsula region is not limited to the introduction of any harsh coercive measures, but rather to Russia's ability to become a kind of economic bridge between North and South Korea. After canceling 90 percent of North Korea's debt in 2012, Russia announced the need to increase investment in infrastructure projects such as the construction of a gas pipeline from Sakhalin to South Korea. In turn, the South Korean business community reacted to this proposal by confirming its readiness to participate in the project for the construction of a railway between the seaside Khasan and the North Korean Rajin.
Since Russia's interest in maintaining relations with North Korea has a more solid foundation than China, this could make the North Korean elite think more seriously about Russia's threat to cancel all joint projects than about China's threats to cut off financial and economic aid. Losing Russia as a diplomatic ally would jeopardize North Korea's relationship with India, as well as other authoritarian regimes in Central and West Africa, which also have close diplomatic relations with Moscow. The threat of complete international isolation of North Korea could force Kim Jong-un to end hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.
The Russia-North Korea alliance has existed since the days of communist ideas and at that time it received maximum development, but, nevertheless, the current tough reaction of Russia to the actions of the DPRK is not surprising. The cooling of relations between Russia and North Korea can be considered a tactical, temporary solution aimed at improving relations with Japan and gaining international status as a diplomatic arbiter. Once Russia achieves its goals and gains the status of an irreplaceable participant in one of the most intractable Asian conflicts, Putin will significantly increase Russia's influence, making the country as influential as China or the countries of the Western community. The Diplomat.