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Will There Be an End to the Korean War?

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The Korean War began 70 years ago, on June 25, 1950. This was not just a standoff between neighboring states. The Korean War, in fact, began as a civil war between the two Korean camps (the North, that sought to build the future of Korea according to the Soviet model, and the South, committed to American attitudes). In the context of the Cold War, it immediately developed into a large-scale military conflict. Great powers were directly or indirectly involved. This includes the USA, Great Britain, USSR, PRC, as well as the UN, which sent an international military contingent to Korea under its own flag to help the South.

Military Confrontation on the 38th Parallel

The inter-Korean confrontation continues to this day. Today, on both sides of the 38th parallel — the latitude line that roughly demarcates the two Korean states — military fortification is piled up, and thousands of troops with modern weapons and military equipment target each other. Moreover, in accordance with the Mutual Defence Treaty between the U.S. and South Korea, the latter is hosting a group of U.S. troops of 28.5 thousand people, subordinate to the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC).

And if Seoul does need the U.S. military presence in Korea in order to protect South Korean economic prosperity from the hypothetical encroachment of Pyongyang, then for Washington, it is only an element of the global system for ensuring “American leadership.” The Korean Peninsula is the only continental element of the U.S. military presence in East Asia. In addition, South Korea, as an ally of the United States, significantly strengthens American military power in the Pacific, doing so to a much greater extent than Japan, still fettered by Article 9 of its Constitution.

Nuclear Issue

In the 1990s, the tangle of security problems on the Korean peninsula was supplemented by the North Korea nuclear crisis. North Korea, in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, announced the development of a nuclear missile program. Pyongyang remembered the calls of the American General Douglas MacArthur, who led the United Nations Command in the Korean War, to use the atomic bomb, and believed that the DPRK’s own nuclear weapons could prevent a potential strike from the United States in the event of a new inter-Korean war.

The United States confronted the North Korean nuclear missile program with a sanctions war and aggressive military rhetoric. This included direct threats of President Trump in 2017 to physically destroy the DPRK should it decide not to give up nuclear missile development. However, common sense prevailed. Mutual accusations gave way to dialog. Three inter-Korean and two North Korea-the U.S. summits took place in 2018–2019.

Inter-Korean Dialog

Inter-Korean dialog was facilitated by two circumstances. On the one hand, having created long-range nuclear missile weapons, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un decided that the main strategic goal to ensure the security of the DPRK from the United States had been achieved, and that the nuclear-missile race could be suspended by putting more funds into economic needs. On the other, it was the behavior of South Korea that promoted a thaw in the relations. And this is not only due to the fact that from the very beginning, the current President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, went to the polls under the slogans of restoring dialog with Pyongyang. The aggressive rhetoric of Donald Trump in 2017 regarding the DPRK also played its role. For the first time in several decades, the world was faced with the real threat of a new war on the Korean Peninsula at the initiative of the United States. South Korea would be the main victim of it, suffering a powerful blow from the North. Therefore, if Washington’s victory in the war would be the liquidation of the North Korean state in its current form, then for Seoul, the only option for victory would be to prevent the war.

There were a lot of expectations from inter-Korean summits. But these expectations were only met, perhaps, by the fact that there will be no nuclear or other war in Korea in the near future. The declarations adopted in Panmunjom and Pyongyang by Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in set a number of tasks to promote cooperation between the two Korean states. However, for the most part, these documents looked more like statements of intent. Many political and legal obstacles stood in the way of fulfilling these intentions.

Therefore, the inter-Korean dialog that pompously started in 2018 began to stall by the end of 2019. At the beginning of June of the current year, it even reached a dead end. Under the pretext that the South Korean authorities did not prevent various public organizations from sending balloons with leaflets wording the attacks on the North Korean regime, Pyongyang blocked all communication channels with Seoul. In addition to this, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who now oversees relations with the South and, in general, has practically become the second most influential figure in the DPRK power structure, promised Seoul to destroy the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in the near future (which was done — Ed. note.), the next step to be made by the military of the North.

The point was not, of course, in sending the balloons with leaflets to North Korea, especially since many of them had not reached the DPRK. The reasons go deeper. On overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, the DPRK economy is in dire need of economic support, and Pyongyang makes it clear that they are dissatisfied with Seoul’s lack of any steps aimed at restoring inter-Korean economic cooperation. This was stipulated by the agreements reached at the summits of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. This is primarily about the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Kumgangsan tourist region. The KIC, located in the DPRK near the border with the Republic of Korea, was the largest and most successful inter-Korean project. It housed the production of more than a hundred South Korean small and medium-sized enterprises, which employed about 50 thousand North Korean workers. By 2015, through the work of the Kaesong complex, inter-Korean trade turnover reached USD 3 billion, which made South Korea the second most important trading partner of the DPRK after China. The Kumgangsan tourist region was open to South Korean citizens for ten years, from 1998 to 2008. During this time, almost 2 million South Koreans could visit it, giving the DPRK government an additional source of income.

Pyongyang seems to be counting on the large victory of the ruling Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections in South Korea in April this year, which might create new prerequisites for restarting the inter-Korean peace process. This is all the more since immediately after the elections, the Office of President Moon Jae-in stated that normalization of relations with Pyongyang remained a priority for the country’s leadership and the resumption of negotiations between the North and the South might occur in May-June.

However, the initiator of rapprochement with the North, President Moon Jae-in, found himself in a critical situation. The most important asset of his party in the elections was not an inter-Korean settlement program, but the successful actions of the South Korean authorities in the fight against the pandemic. Now that the unrest around the pandemic has more or less subsided, the economic problems in the country, aggravated by the pandemic and corruption scandals involving people close to Moon, are again coming to the fore in the public consciousness of the South Koreans. So today, the President of the Republic of Korea is clearly not up to talking with Pyongyang.

The pressure of the big ally certainly plays its role. Before the results of the U.S. presidential election, Washington will not only be unable to take any action on the Korean vector, but will also disallow Seoul to take the initiative.

Do all of Korea’s Neighbors Want the Reunification?

In the current alignment of forces near the Far Eastern borders of Russia, the establishment of Korea as a single independent neutral and nuclear-free state would be in its interest. The question, however, is that at this stage, neither North nor South Korea is ready for reunification. The partners of the two Korean states are not ready for this either.

Seoul is concerned that reunification will come at a very high cost, pulling it out of competition at the regional and global levels for a long time. Pyongyang, in turn, does not intend to surrender to the South. They examined the experience of Germany, where the capitalist West brought the socialist East to heel, making former GDR citizens “second-class” and subjecting members of the former East German power elite to all kinds of persecution, including imprisonment. The new young generation of the North Korean elite is actively blending in with the emerging North Korean business under Kim Jong-un. We have already seen something similar in Russia. Both of these classes — the current military party elite and the North Korean nouveau riche — have a vital common interest in preserving a separate North Korean statehood. The unification of Korea under the leadership of Seoul is equally dangerous for both, because in this case, the elite will lose power, and local business will simply be crushed by the South Korean chaebol monopolies.

As for the United States, it is not really in its interest to have Korea reunited rather than having status quo on the Korean peninsula, maintaining tensions there. This is the most convenient way to keep and, if necessary, strengthen the U.S. military-political presence in Northeast Asia.

China is considering the alignment of forces on the Korean Peninsula primarily through the prism of its confrontation with the United States. Beijing will support the reunification of Korea only if it is sure that a united Korea will be pro-Chinese. There is no certainty about this: Korea, united under Seoul conditions, will, at best for China, become a powerful independent state with strong ties to the United States, and at worst, like Japan, the outpost of Washington’s deterrence of China in the region.

The Japanese, in turn, say that the main question for them is who will get the North Korean nuclear weapons. Tokyo will support the reunification of Korea, only being sure that these weapons are destroyed or withdrawn. In fact, the Japanese are simply afraid of the emergence of a united Korea as a powerful competitor in the regional and world arena, similar to the way England and France tried to delay the unification of Germany in the late 1980s.

Therefore, speaking about the reunification of Korea in the current conditions is at least premature. It should be a matter of inter-Korean reconciliation, building bridges between the two Korean states.

Trump and Pyongyang

In 2018 Donald Trump’s transition from the threat of a military attack on Pyongyang to a dialog with Kim Jong-un was largely forced. Both the insistence of South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the issue of inter-Korean detente and the general international attitude against the risk of a nuclear war against North Korea played a role. Special attention should be given to, firstly, the “road map” for settling the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula put forward on July 4, 2017, by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and China. And, secondly, to the unwillingness of the U.S. allies to engage in new American adventures in Korea, which was clearly shown in January 2018 at Vancouver meeting of the foreign ministers of those states whose troops fought in the Korean War of 1950-1953 on the side of the South as part of the so-called UN forces in Korea.

In dialog with Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un voiced the new relations between the DPRK and the U.S. as the main condition for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. These relations should be based on mutual trust and free from mutual demonization. It is clear that this is not an easy task for Pyongyang and Washington. But there are examples of how similar challenges were solved in due time in China-the U.S. and Vietnam-the U.S. relations. The future relations of the DPRK and the U.S. could reach the level of today’s communication between Vietnam and the U.S., when they still remember the war, but the memory of the past does not prevent them from working together in the present.

Pyongyang could stop the development of ICBMs, freeze the production of nuclear materials, and open its nuclear facilities for international inspections. And Washington, in return, would officially recognize the DPRK, establish diplomatic relations with it, exchange diplomatic missions, limit military activities at its borders, reduce and ultimately lift sanctions, and provide economic and energy assistance to the North.

The problem, however, is that at least for the coming year, any progress in the U.S.-North Korea dialog is ruled out. Trump is concerned about preparations for the presidential election, the extremely unfavorable situation in the country due to racial unrest, and not about Korea. Both now and in case of winning the elected position, there will be more important issues — China, Europe, Russia, the Middle East. Korea will not be among the U.S. foreign policy priorities even if Biden wins the election (all for the same reasons).

Inter-Korean Reconciliation Matter is in the Hands of Koreans Themselves

The main result of the inter-Korean summits was Seoul being reconciled with the existence of the DPRK and adopting the policy of peaceful coexistence with respect to it. The urgent need for the Republic of Korea today is to recognize the status of the DPRK as a sovereign state, the rule of law and constitutionality of its leadership, and shift the relations between the two Koreas into a bilateral format.

The UN is called upon to play its role in this situation. It has been dealing with the “Korean issue” from the moment it arose in the late 1940s. Yet after the approval of two resolutions on this issue at once during the 30th session of the General Assembly in November 1975 (one initiated by the USA and the other by the USSR (both remained unfulfilled)), it basically removed the issue of a political settlement in Korea from the agenda.

First of all, it is worth changing a completely unnatural situation when, formally it is not the Republic of Korea, that is in the military confrontation with the DPRK, but the UN. To assist South Korea during the Korean War, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution No. 84 of July 7, 1950, the United Nations Forces in Korea were created — the multinational armed forces of 16 states led by the United States. Since these forces participated in the Korean War under the UN flag, and the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on the behalf of these forces opposing the Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers (and in fact on behalf of the UN), the latter is still formally at war with the DPRK, that since 1991 is a full member of the UN.

It is time to adopt the UN Security Council declaration and to declare that the Korean War was a page of the past, that the UN Security Council turns this page and, accordingly, there is no need for the UN Command in Korea.

As for the American troops in South Korea, their presence should be regulated exclusively by interstate agreements between the Republic of Korea and the United States. In this case, it would be worthwhile to decide on the issue of Operational Command (OPCON) by the ROK/US Combined Forces Command. Now, under bilateral agreements, in peacetime on the peninsula, South Korea commands both its own troops and the U.S. military contingent. However, with the outbreak of war, the command automatically transfers to the United States, which means, in fact, that the President of the Republic of Korea, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces, becomes subordinate to the Lieutenant General of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Peace Treaty

The question about the need to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement in Korea with a peace treaty repeatedly arose in connection with the inter-Korean summits. At the same time, there is a wide range of opinions expressed as to which states should be parties to this treaty.

The Armistice Agreement of 1953 was not an interstate document. It was an agreement between the commanders-in-chief of the warring parties on the suspension of hostilities, the withdrawal of troops and establishing a demilitarized border between them. Neither the Republic of Korea, nor the United States, nor China in state capacity were involved in the armistice agreement. Moreover, the United States and China did not participate in the Korean War as states.

The peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula should be the treaty of two sovereign independent states — the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. There are certain preconditions for this. A joint communique of the Republic of Korea and North Korea was issued on July 4, 1972, calling for an independent and peaceful reunification of the divided country, without depending on foreign powers and without foreign interference, on the basis of “great national unity.” In December 1991, the heads of government of the North and South for the first time formally recognized the equal existence of two Korean states by signing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression and Exchanges and Cooperation. Five inter-Korean summits took place from 2000 to 2018, joint declarations being adopted at each of them — a program for the development of bilateral relations aimed at a gradual shift from confrontation to reconciliation and phased rapprochement. None of these documents provided for the participation of any third states in inter-Korean communication. It was and should be about the interaction of the two Koreas exclusively in a bilateral format.

It is noteworthy that during the 2018 Pyongyang Summit the Agreement on the Implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain was signed by the Ministers of Defense of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. This is a fundamentally new and, most importantly, a practical step towards reducing military tension. Confidence-building measures between the military are being strengthened, communication channels are opening up, the parties are going to take all measures to prevent any clashes and conflicts with the use of military force in any territory. This is all the more important, firstly, since the ROK in its own capacity did not sign the Armistice Agreement in Korea in 1953. Secondly, the leaders of the two states announced that they would pursue a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games. That is, the ROK recognized that it did not expect, as in the previous years, the regime to fall in the DPRK and that the North and South would exist separately even in 15 years.

The Korean War that started 70 years ago, has not ended yet. The Korean crisis today is one of the main threats to international security. This crisis has two components: the division of the Korean nation over decades into two separate states and the DPRK nuclear missile program.

These two components of the Korean crisis are interconnected, but their impact on each other is unequal. Pyongyang’s refusal from nuclear development alone will not end the confrontation between North and South. At the same time, normalization of inter-Korean relations is a prerequisite for ending the Korean War matters and solving the denuclearization issue of the Korean Peninsula.

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Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects

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image source: twitter @kishida230

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.

Challenges

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.

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Will There Be an End to the War in Korea?

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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 United States and Japan in Multilateral Asia: Forging Relations and Binding Ties

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Bilateral relations between the world’s sole superpower, the United States of America (US, USA), and the world’s third-largest economic power, the East Asian powerhouse of Japan, are premised on forging healthy relations and binding with the rest of Asia impeccably. This would involve deepening existing ties and forging new ones with the many notable actors professing to vital stakes and vested interests across the length and breadth of the world’s largest continent, as also the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). As on date, owing to evident differings and conflictual circumstances between countries such as Japan and South Korea, Washington D. C. is compelled to calculate its forays in Asia while aspiring for long-term amicability between belligerent countries. However, this factor has not stopped Washington from establishing, entertaining, and evolving its mini/multi-lateral relationships in Asia, especially in the eastern geography of the continent. The United States has implemented a ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ alliance system in the security environs of the Asia-Pacific, with Japan a critical, if not the most critical, ‘spoke’ in this system (see Figure 1 below).

Fig. 1  The US ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ Arrangement in Asia. Source:  The ASEAN Post

America and Japan are not just involved bilaterally, but have enforced an effective multilateral impression leading to having exercised their geopolitical influence across Asia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, better known as the QUAD) is an initiative of four democracies, which was the brainchild of Japan in the mid-2000s, with pressing commonalities and engaging objectives in the Indo-Pacific in particular. Its four member democracies are the US, Japan, Australia, and India. It was heralded in 2007 courtesy promptings from Japan about the state of maritime security and apprehensions about the upsetting rise of a determined emerging superpower in the Peoples’ Republic of China, despite having initially focussed on disaster relief in the high seas (The Indian Ocean tsunami, December 2004). Of late, the QUAD has been given a much-needed impetus with the as-yet unstructured grouping having adopted a sole security motive to offset the rise of an increasingly influential, overbearing, and overpowering China. A first-ever in-person meeting was organised between its members in Washington D. C., with the capital of the United States signifying just how far the QUAD has come in terms of sustained minilateral activism. This in-person meeting has followed meetings between senior-level officials such as the respective foreign ministers of the four partner countries.

The US and Japan have also extensively associated with Southeast Asia as far as the political, geopolitical, economic, geoeconomic, security, and geostrategic situations of the region are concerned. The US remains on exceedingly and improvingly good terms with South China Sea countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – which are the four major countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the ASEAN. These relationships are centred upon the military, and especially maritime-military, domain given that Southeast Asia largely involves routine and menacing Chinese infringements in the form of the brazen excursions of its many maritime entities such as the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). An interest in Southeast Asia for Tokyo and Washington caters to a diverse array of initiations and involvement ranging from economic and trade relations to investments and financial outlays for very specific purposes. Timely and responsive military assistance in the form of equipment donations and technology transfers have also become a staple of the US and Japan’s association with Southeast Asian countries. A wary approach is pursued in the perplexing domain of the South and East China Seas with freedom of navigation considered to be an imperative of the vast maritime-naval forces deployed by Washington and Tokyo.

The United States was one of the first Dialogue Partners of the ASEAN (since 1977), and this is also when Japan formalised its till-then-informal dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The US has been involved in several ASEAN-driven maritime-allied formal platforms such as the East Asia Summit (2005), the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (since 2012), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (which is held with all of the ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners and first took place in Vietnam in 2010). Japan is involved integrally in all of the above forums and the ASEAN+3, an exclusive between ASEAN and China, the Republic of Korea, plus Japan itself. In the broader respect, American involvement has helped forge a unity among the participants of such pioneering political, economic, and security mechanisms amongst, primarily, Southeast and east Asian nations, ably assisted by Japan wherever feasible. America’s (in)famous 2011 ‘pivot to Asia’, officially named a ‘Rebalance’, was meant to re-tune and re-focus its attention to the world’s largest and most important continent as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. This was due to the twin reasons of dealing with the emerging security imperatives related to erasing the extra-sovereign Chinese strategic footprint and devising new paradigms of mutually-beneficial economic cooperation with like-minded Asian countries. Southeast Asia was deemed to be the geographical launchpad of this strategy which has since evolved under succeeding administrations.

Other multilateral involvements which help address issues bearing a commonality and a convergence of maritime interests include the US-Australia-Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD). Australia is a country which is increasingly being viewed as an actor with the required level of capacities and capabilities befitting a broader and deeper Indo-Pacific institution of itself, and the recent announcement of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) arrangement has just critically elevated its nuclear threshold. Within the ambit of the Indo-Pacific region in which all three profess to geopolitical stakes, both the US and Japan are highly committed friends of Australia. The TSD was founded in the late 2000s and was focussed on elevating cooperation between the three major Indo-Pacific players in the broader domain of security, which also includes the diplomatic, economic, social, and political arenas. A concerted and concentrated focus on China was also one of the themes of the security domain of the TSD. The last meeting of this trilateral took place in August 2019, a few months prior to the onset of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in Japan. A joint ministerial statement issued by the three parties was ASEAN-centric and endorsed the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. This last meeting had actually co-incided with the circulation of the ‘Outlook’ document by the ASEAN community.

It is certain that the US and Japan have, since time immemorial, indicated a tendency to align key and emerging players in regions of critical geopolitical importance, such as Southeast Asia, and this has considerably vitalised multilateralism. This optimism has been consistently backed by strategies entailing day-to-day participation and the US has emerged as an oddly Asian country in itself through a multitude of ever-growing endeavours. It has expended considerable bandwidth to Asia since the end of the warring years and there is much to both gain and learn from such a grand venture by a foreign superpower. The US remains immensely close to the ASEAN, as does Japan. The extent to which Washington and Tokyo have aided, abetted, assisted, and assured their friends and allies either jointly or individually is worth commendation and furthers a welcome duopoly in the Indo-Pacific region. Most of Southeast Asia remains in an emerging form, with a few prosperous exceptions such as the city-state of Singapore which are responsible for the rise of ASEAN as a worthy participant in the Indo-Pacific’s ‘Great Game’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of his employers in the National Maritime Foundation or Modern Diplomacy.

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