Authors: Darya Gribkova & Viktoria Ivanchenko*
According to Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power concept, Japan’s attractiveness potential is one of the highest in the world. But at the same time Japan faces obstacles to its comprehensive implementation. First of all, it is a policy towards preservation of internal values and the way of life, Tokyo’s aggressive policy in the first half of the 20th century still not forgotten by its milieu, demographic problems, successful competition by the rapidly developing neighbors, especially Republic of Korea and China, in the field of soft power. Today Japan’s desire to revive the status of military power makes the situation more complicated.
Japan is a convincing example of promoting the positive image by a non-great power without engaging military means. Economic success, urban development, high quality of education, futuristic technologies, mysterious culture which burst into information space by anime and manga created perception of Japan as a smart and advanced country. Demonstrative disregard of geopolitical ambitions helped Japan to keep up its stable position in the international arena for a long time.
But what components does Japan’s soft power include now? What role does the state play in it? Which regions of the world are priority-driven when choosing the directions of the Japanese soft impact? What are the prospects for Japanese soft power and which countries can compete with Japan? Let us try to examine the system carefully.
State, “soft power” and cultural diplomacy
Traditional spheres the state is in charge of are economic and military because they both guarantee state’s survival. In case of the state’s participation in public diplomacy space for activity of special-purpose funds, NGOs, media and large corporations occurs. In today’s world, one way or another, states are limited in the use of hard powerand it is soft power that becomes an instrument for creating favorable environment for foreign policy.
Japanese soft power developed independently of the state and rose from Japanese culture, national traditions, aureole of mystery and inaccessibility and later rose from modernization success and model of economic development. But at which stage did the state get involved and soft power become considered as a means of winning leading positions in the world economy, policy and culture for Japan?
After World War II Japanese government faced necessity not only to recover economy and reform governance system in the state but as well to overcome the image of aggressor in the international arena. Spheres of culture and public diplomacy offered Japan wide opportunities for such activity.
Today implementation of Japan’s soft power is under control of Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 1972 the Japan Foundation was established under the Ministry’s management for development of cultural exchange, promotion of Japanese studies abroad, researching activity of Western institutions and international cultural exchange standards and programs. In October 2003 the Foundation became an independent institution and now it has 24 offices around the world, its activity covers more than 190 countries. The main directions of Foundation’s activity are exchange programs for outstanding specialists in the field of cross-cultural communication, science and culture as well as sport exchange programs and participation of Japanese scientists in international conferences, preservation of Japanese cultural monuments by Japanese specialists , cooperation on realization of joint projects with UNESCO.
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) regulates the issues related to the official development assistance; its goals are the reduction of poverty, increase of effectiveness of management systems, ensuring human security and stimulation of educational and cultural exchange.
In 1988 Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry began to publish the monthly journal on foreign affairs “Gaiko Forum”, which also covered issues related to Japanese popular culture and public diplomacy.
In 2005 the Advisory Committee led by Tamotsu Aoki, professor of Hosei University, was formed to conceptualize the elements of Japan’s soft power. In Diplomatic Blue Book 2004 a section of the 3rd chapter dedicated to the soft power concept and public diplomacy, improvement of image of the state abroad, students exchange programs, cooperation in the cultural sphere. One of the most important part is about “Cool Japan”, public diplomacy program aimed at the promotion of Japanese popular culture. By 2014 the government’s spending for promotion of Japanese pop-culture reached almost $883 million. In 2004, ex-prime minister Aso Taro in his speech about Japan’s strategic development stressed soft power as one of the most perspective direction and Japan’s attractiveness promotion in the world as one of the resources of growth.
There is a departure in the MOFA structure, that realizes Japanese film festivals, painting exhibitions, Japanese cuisine days. The MOFA’s internet-page provides links to resources related to public relations abroad, cultural and people-to-people exchange, cooperation with international organizations (UNESCO, UNU) including WebJapan (available in Chinese, English, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Danish and French) which provides information on trends in Japanese fashion, cuisine, nature, Japan’s achievements in the field of economy, education, environmental protection and so on.
Also it is worth to note that neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Foreign Affairs, nor the Japanese Ambassadors refuse to give comments to the major national and foreign media on such seemingly acute issues as territorial disputes with neighbors. This looks like demonstration of Tokyo’s willingness to discuss these issues openly and confidence in the legitimacy of the territorial claims.
The state invests a lot in support of external economic activity of Japanese enterprises. In the sphere of economy attractiveness of the state and national culture are valuable as they bring significant dividends to business. At the same time the country’s economic success is already a powerful tool of positive influence which forms the attraction of Japanese corporate culture. In the Intellectual Property Strategic Program 2006 cultural and economic aspects were identified as complementary, and also there were measures proposed to improve the image of the country through the use of rich cultural potential, through support of Japanese business and promotion of Japan brand all over the world. The brand “Made in Japan” around the world is associated with the quality and reliability of Japanese products and despite the high price it is in great demand.
In 2004 the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry launched the “Japan Brand” program, aimed at promoting certain products produced in Japanese regions at the foreign markets. This program became a part of a strategy for stimulating external economic activity of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Japan became the first state in Asia which realized the opportunities that opens up the proper use of soft power as a powerful instrument of influence in the world. After the World War II Japan was a defeated aggressor, which in order to restore its economy and position in the international community needed to achieve normal relations, primarily with the countries of Asia Pacific, which suffered the most during the war.
But active state involvement and directive approach to soft power produce some serious risks. Usually, the private sector evokes more trust abroad as more independent and free in its actions.
Here other players come, for example, transnational companies. One of the strongest soft power instruments they engage is corporate social responsibility. Such big companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota take part in various projects related to the social sphere in Russia. For instance, Mitsubishi Corporation supports the Center of Japanese language and culture in Moscow State Linguistic University. As well in 2017 on the base of Far Eastern Federal University Mitsubishi Corporation and Far Eastern Federal University established the Center for study of Russian-Japanese relations. Mitsubishi’s employees visit boarding schools, organize educational and leisure activities. In December 2015 Furusawa Minoru, CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation Russia, was awarded as a “Maecenas of the year” at the St. Petersburg Cultural Forum.
Vectors of dissemination
After the World War II Japan managed to solve an extremely difficult task: in a short period of time the country not only earned the reputation of a peace-loving country and a reliable economic partner but still continues to support it successfully.
Japan’s cautious, non-assertive policy and economic assistance to the countries of Asia Pacific after the World War II played a key role. In 1954 Japan became a participant of the Colombo Plan for the joint economic and social development of Asia and the Pacific. From that moment, directly or through participation in international projects, Japan began to provide official development assistance, grants without requiring their return and long-term loans on preferential terms. Today speaking of lending Japanese banks keep a leading position in the Asia Pacific region.
The construction of Japan’s infrastructure projects is another significant area, however today Japan faces strong competition from China. Tokyo invests in the construction of schools, hospitals, purchase of equipment, construction of roads. In May 2015 Shinzo Abe announced the launch of the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” project which should embrace South, Southeast and Central Asia countries. Next five years Tokyo intends to invest 110 billion dollars for the project implementation. Despite the recession that has continued since the 1990s, Japan remains the main donor of economic assistance and lender in Asia, one of the founders of the Asian Development Bank and the largest contributor to infrastructure development projects.
Assistance for developing countries, financing of development programs, provision of preferential long-term loans, training of personnel and sending Japanese specialists to developing countries allows to form the positive image of the country and favorable environment for Japanese business.
During the recovery period after the World War II the cautious Tokyo’s policy, the emphasis on the provision of economic means, loans, grants, and investments in infrastructure project played an important role in spreading the so-called soft influence of Japan in North Asia and Southeast Asia – closest Japan’s neighbours. Thus, after the beginning of reforms in the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s Japan was one of the main trading partners and still one of the main investors.
Because of geographical proximity and close historical ties China and South Korea became the first countries which felt Japanese soft power influence through the popular culture. In late 1990s Japan faced a strong competitor: South Korea film production, music (K-pop) and tourism to Korea, Korean ethnic cuisine, electronics intercepted interest in Japan. Korean pop culture first captured China and Japan, then Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Mongolia, European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, America. Nevertheless, 99% of the exports of the Korean cultural industry go to Asian countries.
To some extent Japan nurtured its competitor itself: it was the Republic of Korea that was the largest consumer of the products of the Japanese popular industry, and then the imitator, subsequently adding its national flavor to the most popular samples of Japanese pop culture.
In Southeast Asia Singapore became a kind of reference point for distribution of Japanese popular culture. In November 2009 the Japan Creative Center was opened in Singapore to introduce traditional and modern Japanese culture, technological achievements, cuisine, anime, crafts, cinema and music.
In Central Asia the basis of Japanese soft power is Japan’s Asian identity, similarity. Diplomatic relations with the countries of the region Tokyo established in the 1990s, but they won attention much earlier and today they are spurred by Tokyo’s interest in energy potential and transit opportunities of these countries.
The undeniable advantage of Japan in the Central Asian region is the absence of military aggression in the past and, as a result, the absence of negative memory of the peoples regarding Japan. “Residents of Central Asia remember tens of thousands of Japanese prisoners of war on the territory of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan after the World War II. Until now buildings built by their hands have been preserved, for example, the Central Telegraph and the Ministry of Culture in Tashkent, the Academy of Sciences in Almaty, the Farhad Hydropower Station in Tajikistan”, notes Olga Dobrinskaya, Research Officer at the Department of Japanese Studies, Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In the 1990s Central Asian countries had to choose the way for further development including economic model. The Japanese case with the leading role of the state seemed very attractive, as well as the fact that Japan acted as a carrier of Western values of democracy with some Eastern specificity.
Ryutaro Hashimoto’s concept of the “Eurasian diplomacy” meant revitalization of Japan’s relations with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region and China. In 2004, Japan initiated the launch of the “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue to strengthen mutual understanding between countries. In 2006 Central Asia along with the South Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, South, Southeast and Northeast Asia were inserted in the concept of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”. Shinzo Abe’s visits to the countries of Central Asia in November 2015 became a demonstration of serious interest in cooperation with the countries of the region.
Among the examples of Japan’s soft power in Central Asia, it is significant to mention programs of official assistance to the development of the Central Asian states, projects in the field of ecology, green and energy-saving technologies, in the spheres of agriculture, education, health. Successes in these fields have strengthened Japan’s image as a state that promotes and develops non-military security.
Japan is interested in Central Asia’s transit routes and energy resources, and that’s why the Japanese government is interested in the stability of the region including environmental dimension, political, economic and social spheres.
Difficulties and prospects
In the Soft Power 30 global index of Portland in 2017 Japan ranks sixth while in 2015 it was located on the eighth position. Despite the high indices there are factors which contain the further realization of the potential of Japan’s soft power.
The most important one is related to the perception of foreign influence. Soft power becomes an unattainable ideal wherever different identities, ideologies, views collide. It becomes effective only if the ‘recipient’ of soft power shares the notions of the way of life, worldview, culture of the soft power ‘projector’. Concerning effectiveness of Japanese soft power the following question arises: how much is Japan’s soft power viable in Northeast Asia given the growth of nationalist sentiments in Asia including those in China and Korea, and Japan’s implementation of military reforms policy? Can it cope with competition from the Chinese cultural heritage which is much older than Japanese one?
Another issue concerns weakness of soft power in overcoming hostility and rivalry rooted back far in the past and kept in memory of several generations. It is evident within long-lasting memory of Japan’s militaristic and colonial policy in Asia in the first half of the 20th century.
Today in Japan military component as an invariable attribute of great power gradually displaces the ‘soft’ component, which is absolutely important in the world of international technologies and free information flows. Nevertheless, soft power cannot be disregarded, since it is one of the most important elements shaping the image of the state, which strives for a more weighty position among powerful actors and in dealing with global issues.
Moreover, the longest life expectancy results in a high rate of aging; the desire to preserve the culture, way of life, business ethics appears in rigid migration legislation, which exacerbates demographic problems. The migration legislation provides a facilitated regime for obtaining visas and citizenship for “unique” specialists, however, a language barrier remains a strong obstacle. Japanese popular culture is experiencing serious competition from the Korean one. Competition with China in Southeast Asia and Central Asia is increasing and India is rising a a new vigorous rival in the economic field.
So the question is if it is possible in the current conditions to give a new impetus to the Japanese soft power. In case Abe’s government is able to cope with domestic economic problems, Japan will be able to maintain its status as a reliable economic partner and one of the main creditors in the international community.
An important but hardly feasible step could be Japan’s willingness to discuss the issues related to its militaristic past, which the present government is trying to forget with all its might.
In cultural diplomacy Japan relies on pop-culture, the brand of anime and manga, which should promote a deeper interest in the country’s rich culture. But maybe today the world needs things which fascinated foreigners in the XIX-XX centuries? For example, traditional, authentic cultural heritage?
Today military reforms can eradicate the government’s efforts to project its soft power and their further implementation will require much more effort and resources to maintain Japan’s attractiveness in the world. A great opportunity to put life into Japanese soft power can be the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games which will be held in Japan.
As well 2018 is a cross-cultural Russian-Japanese year. For both countries it is a great opportunity to better understand each other, to make people interact more often and find more common points for cooperation. Despite the Kuril issue, which is yet to be resolved, current stable and friendly relations between Russia and Japan provide great potential for dialogue and collaboration. Within the Pivot to the East Russia now makes an attempt to establish close ties with promising and highly developed Asian countries, and 2018 grants Japan a more privileged position at least in terms of people-to-people contacts.
Japan`s cultural events are warmly welcomed in Russia. For instance, in Autumn 2017 just three big events took place in Moscow: 7th Moscow Biennale, exhibitions by Takashi Murakami “There will be a gentle rain” and Keichi Tanaami “Country of mirrors”.
But opportunities granted to Japan by international large-scale sports and cultural events have temporary effects although they give a good chance to show the country at its best. Japan as an influential soft power actor requires a long-term strategy which would work in accordance with other state policies. Otherwise, Japanese government run risks to lose its positions as one of soft power leaders if it chooses hard power instruments for projecting its influence and will have to fully revise its soft power strategy.
Original pre-revised text in Russian
*Viktoria Ivanchenko, PICREADI (Creative Diplomacy) editor-in-chief, researcher at Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects
In October, Japan had inaugurated Fumio Kishida as the new prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election earlier. Surely this new statesmanship will consequently influence Tokyo’s trajectory in international and regional affairs, including Southeast Asia.
Not only that Japan has much intensive strategic cooperation with Southeast Asians for decades, but the region’s importance has also been increasing under Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Southeast Asia, as a linchpin connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is key to Japan’s geostrategic interest and vision.
Since the LDP presidential election debate, many have identified Kishida’s policy trajectory, including in the defense and security aspect. Being bold, Kishida reflected its hawkish stance on China, North Korea, and its commitment to strengthening its alliance with Washington. Furthermore, Kishida also aimed to advance the geostrategic and security initiatives with like-minded countries, especially under FOIP.
One of the like-minded countries for Japan is Indonesia, which is key Japan’s key partner in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific.
This article maps the prospect of Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia under the new prime minister. It argues that Prime Minister Kishida will continue to grow Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia to adjust to the changing security environment in Indo-Pacific.
Japan – Indonesia Common Ground
In its basic principle, Japan and Indonesia shared the same values in democracy, rules-based order, and freedom of navigation in developing strategic cooperation, especially in the maritime security aspect.
In the geostrategic context, Japan and Indonesia also have significant similarities. Both countries are maritime countries and seeking to maximize their maritime power, as well as having formally synchronized geostrategic vision. While Japan has FOIP, Indonesia has Global Maritime Fulcrum (Poros Maritim Dunia) and leading initiator for ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
In capitalizing on this shared vision, since Shinzo Abe and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo era, Japan and Indonesia have initiated much new security cooperation ranging from a high-level framework such as 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in 2015 and 2021 to capacity building assistances and joint exercises. Furthermore, defense equipment transfers and joint technology development were also kicked off under Abe-Jokowi.
Kishida’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Profile
Compared to his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, Prime Minister Kishida is more familiar with foreign affairs.
Personally, Kishida comes from a political family and spent several years living in the United States, reflecting his exposure to the international and political environment from an early age. This is significantly different from Suga, who grew up in a strawberry farmer family in a rural area in Akita Prefecture.
Politically, served as foreign minister under Shinzo Abe, Fumio Kishida is the longest-serving foreign minister in Japan’s history. This reflects his extensive understanding of current world affairs, compared to Suga who spent most of his prime political career in the domestic area such as being chief cabinet secretary and minister for internal affairs & communication.
Specifically, in defense and security posture, Prime Minister Kishida is willing to go beyond the status quo and not blocking any key options in order “to protect citizens”. During his policy speeches, he stated that he is not ruling out the option to build attacking capabilities due to the severe security environment surrounding Japan. Also, Kishida will not limit the defense budget under 1% of Japan’s gross domestic product if necessary.
Future Security Cooperation Trajectory with Indonesia
In short, policy continuity will play a huge role. One of the reasons why Kishida was able to win over more popular Kono was due to his moderate liberalness, demonstrating stability over change. This was more preferred by faction leaders in LDP.
In defense and foreign affairs, the continuity is boldly shown as despite appointing entirely new ministers in his cabinet, the only two ministers retained by Kishida are Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi. By this, it sent the narrative to the international community that there will not be significant turbulence caused by the changing leadership on Japan’s side.
As a background context on Indonesia, Fumio Kishida was the foreign minister from the Japanese side behind the 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting with Indonesia in 2015. Indonesia is the only country Japan has such a high-level security framework within Southeast Asia. This framework has led Japan and Indonesia to have a second edition of the 2+2 meeting in 2021, resulting in many practical cooperation deals in defense and security.
The other setting supporting Kishida’s policy continuity, especially in the context with Indonesia is that his foreign minister’s counterpart, Retno Marsudi, was still in charge from the last time Kishida left the foreign minister post in 2017, until today. Initiating the 2+2 framework together, it will be easier for Kishida to resume his relationship with both President Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno in advancing its strategic cooperation with Indonesia, especially in the defense and security area.
The prospect of continuity is also reflected in Kishida’s commitment to continue the geostrategy relay of both his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Suga Yoshihide, in achieving the FOIP vision.
Not only that Indonesia is having a similar vision of maritime prosperity and values with Japan, but Indonesia is also concerned with South China Sea dynamics as it started to threaten Indonesia’s remote islands, especially Natuna Islands. As this is a crucial cooperation opportunity, Kishida needs to continue assisting Indonesia to improve the security and prosperity of its remote islands. Thus, as Kishida also admitted that Indonesia is a major country in ASEAN, having favorable relations with Indonesia is important for Japan’s geostrategy.
To capitalize on the potentials with Indonesia, Kishida needs to support Indonesia’s strategic independence as well as to make the best of his position as one of the United States’ allies in Asia.
Despite his tougher stance on China and Taiwan issues, Kishida cannot fully project Japan’s rivalry with China to Indonesia. In addition to its strategic independence, Indonesia has and needs strong strategic relations with China to support many of the vital development projects surrounding Indonesia. This cannot be touched.
Also, Japan needs to bridge Indonesia, as well as other like-minded Southeast Asian countries, with the Quad and AUKUS proponents. Indonesia is formally stated that it is concerned about the ownership of nuclear-powered weapons by its neighboring countries. On the other side, Japan supported AUKUS and is a close ally of the U.S. Kishida’s ability to grab this opportunity will solidify Japan’s credibility and position among Southeast Asians.
Will There Be an End to the War in Korea?
On September 21, 2021, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in addressed the UN General Assembly, calling for a formal end to the Korean War of 1950–1953. “I … propose that the three parties of the two Koreas and the U.S. or the four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over,” Moon Jae-in said.
President Moon’s call appeared more relevant than ever before. For decades, the military stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has been haunted by the threat of a “big war” that could involve nuclear weapons. Resolving the issue also presents a crucial political and legal problem, as the UN has from the outset been involved in the conflict. On the one hand, the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement only meant the cessation of military hostilities, not an end to the war as such. On the other hand, the absurd truth is that it is the United Nations, rather than South Korea, that is officially locked in a military stand-off with North Korea—something certainly needs to be done about this. During the war, South Korea received assistance in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 84 passed on July 7, 1950, establishing the UN Command, multinational armed forces of 16 states led by the United States. These forces fought in the Korean War under the UN flag and signed the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement as the adversary of the Korean People’s Army and China’s People’s Volunteer Army. The Command effectively signed the agreement on behalf of the United Nations, meaning that the latter is still formally at war with North Korea, a full-fledged UN member state since 1991.
President Moon has done his outmost best to build bridges between the two Koreas. The inter-Korean summits of 2018 yielded some positive results—in the near future, there will be no war in Korea, whether nuclear or conventional. That said, the two Koreas have recently tested ballistic missiles, thus demonstrating that Pyongyang and Seoul are both ready for dialogue and for confrontation. South Korea has accepted the existence of North Korea to adopt a policy of peaceful co-existence towards its closest neighbor. However, the parties have proved unable to take the most important step, which is to move the inter-Korean relations to a bilateral format. Moreover, Seoul still refuses to recognize the status of North Korea as that of an equal sovereign state, with a legitimate and constitutional leadership.
Some premises for this seem to be there. Nationalism is what brings the two Korean states closer. Even their first joint statement, dating back to July 4, 1972, said that the Korean unification must be achieved independently, without outside interference, which means peacefully and on the basis of “national consolidation.” In December 1991, the heads of government of the two Koreas signed the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea, formally acknowledging the equal co-existence of the two Korean states. Five inter-Korean summits were held between 2000 and 2018, with joint declarations adopted at each of them. These were essentially programmes to cultivate bilateral relations that would see the two countries move away from confrontation towards reconciliation and eventual rapprochement. None of the documents envisioned any participation of third states in the inter-Korean communication. The relations between North and South Korea have always been conceptualized in an exclusively bilateral dimension, a practice that should persist.
President Moon has also proposed to establish some multilateral organization to include North Korea. “I propose today launching a Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, whereby North Korea participates as a member along with China, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.” He emphasized that states can no longer handle their national security issues individually. “A cooperative architecture that guarantees collective protection of life and safety will lay the groundwork for North Korea to have its security guaranteed by engaging with the international community.” The President believes that “the end-of-war declaration will indeed open the door to complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Inter-Korean normalization would be impossible without the sanctions lifted, which requires certain progress towards resolving the nuclear issue. North Korea’s nuclear status is enshrined in its constitution—for today’s Pyongyang, this topic cannot be subject to any discussion. It would be wise to adopt a step-by-step approach here—first limiting North Korea’s nuclear missiles, then reducing their numbers to eliminate them all in the end. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang should be replaced with the “six-party” talks that sought to resolve the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula in 2003–2008. For a humble beginning, the parties could discuss the prospects of putting a freeze on missile development, guaranteeing the non-proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies. Pyongyang could cease its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and intermediate- or shorter-range missiles, opening its nuclear facilities for international inspections. In exchange, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul would formally recognize North Korea, establishing diplomatic relations, exchanging diplomatic missions, easing and ultimately lifting sanctions, rather choosing to provide economic and energy assistance to North Korea. A secure and stable North Korea is a far more reliable partner for talks on any subject, including on nuclear issues, than a country cornered by sanctions.
Today’s Northeast Asia is the only region in the world that lacks a multilateral framework to discuss matters of mutual interest or settle conflicts between regional parties. The main obstacle in the way of creating a security system in Northeast Asia is the little trust between the parties. Trust cannot appear without a dialogue on the specific issues of common interest.
In this respect, President Moon’s proposal to establish a multilateral organization that would include North Korea is worthy of note, as it is clearly an attempt to engage with North Korea in international affairs.
As part of its “New Northern Policy”, South Korea could complement President Moon’s current initiative by becoming an intermediary for other Northeast Asian states in assisting in their long-term projects in regional security, energy security, safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy, transportation security and cybersecurity. Setting up legally binding partnerships in the region in these areas, as well as fine-tuning their procedural mechanisms, would allow the parties to build mutual trust to move on to discussions of a broader range of regional issues concerning peace, development and security.
Bringing South Korea’s “New Northern Policy” in line with the existing programmes for international economic integration, which are already “tied-in” to each other (such as the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative), could bring about positive results. Openness, transparency and respect for each other’s interests could go a long way to establishing an effective framework for dialogue as well as a Eurasian Economic Partnership that would include both Koreas. However, how feasible is such an aligning of South Korea’s policies with more global initiatives given the country’s current alliance with the United States?
President Moon Jae-in proposed his initiative against the background of major malfunctions in international communication. The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted everyday life throughout the world. The entire system of international organizations turned out to be totally ineffective, if not completely paralyzed. At the same time, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has struck quite a heavy blow to the entire system of international relations. And it is not so much the U.S. defeat that matters here. Rather, it is the circumstances under which this defeat took place. In leaving Afghanistan, the Americans effectively presented their Afghan clients and their NATO allies, who had been fighting alongside them for 20 years, with a fait accompli.
The Afghan debacle will certainly have repercussions for the situation on the Korean peninsula. Currently, Washington seems to be incapable of proposing new initiatives on the nuclear issue, especially as it faces a number of far more urgent challenges across a broad geographic perimeter, stretching from China to Afghanistan. Still, no matter how interested Russia or China might be in the Korean sanctions being eased or lifted, this cannot be resolved without the United States.
However, the ancients used to say that a crisis can be both a disaster and an opportunity. Like any global crisis, not only do the pandemic and the U.S. fiasco in Afghanistan generate additional risks and challenges for the international community, but they also come with fresh opportunities, opening up new prospects. This applies to the current initiatives proposed by President Moon Jae-in just as well.
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The 2021 finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought are Afghan women, Jeanine Áñez and Alexei...
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After World War II, the conflict over superiority between the United States and the Soviet Union began. The US-led NATO...
Companies may be overlooking the riskiest cyber threats of all
A majority of companies don’t have a handle on their third-party cyber risks – risks obscured by the complexity of...
European Innovation Council announces new wave of start-up champions
The European Commission’s European Innovation Council has selected 65 innovative start-ups and SMEs to receive €363 million of funding for...
Iran unveils new negotiation strategy
While the West is pressuring Iran for a return to the Vienna nuclear talks, the top Iranian diplomat unveiled a...
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding...
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