11.04.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Crimean Crisis and the Korean Peninsula

3456789Notwithstanding the vast distance that separates the Crimean and Korean peninsulas, events in Crimea and their potential further development may have reverberations in Northeast Asia. And though many lessons of the Ukrainian crisis may be misunderstood, in this article we will attempt to enumerate the geopolitical consequences and implications that the responsible parties in the countries of the region, including Korea, are able to draw from those events.

We will begin with the lessons relating directly to Yanukovich’s regime and its fall. From a certain point of view the fate of Yanukovich was similar to that of Qaddafi or Ceaușescu. The odious ruler attempts to navigate between two opposing camps, calculating that this “neutral status” will allow him to maintain a certain level of independence in internal politics for the purpose of being able to govern as he sees fit, including doing what is best for himself and his familial clan. Those who are “nobody’s friend” are of course tolerated, and a blind eye turned on their trickery, up to a certain point, but when a serious internal conflict hits the country, neither of the opposing sides is in any hurry to save the regime.

In this sense the Ukrainian Prime Minister is a useful illustration of the way an incompetent ruler can narrow down his social base, acting on the principle “Beat your own to scare the others” and neglecting to strengthen his state apparatus, including his power bloc. Loosely speaking, the other dictators in the world were given a good lesson in what not to do.

The second conclusion to be drawn from the fall of the regime may be politically incorrect, but relates to the well-known Luttwak thesis, “Give war a chance,” according to which indecision and the fear of taking harsh measures in a crisis situation deepen and prolong the conflict and may potentially lead to much worse consequences than the possible victims resulting from the use of force. This means that the authoritarian leaders of East Asian countries may well perceive the Kievan experience as indicating that in dealing with such a situation at home they must act decisively and not flinch at bloodshed. Accordingly, we may expect a certain quantity of measures directed at preventing such protests, and this applies not only to the DPRK but also the PRC and the Republic of Korea, where democracy is relatively precarious. Crimea is being perceived as a lesson to Xinjiang and Tibet, and it is therefore to be expected that the experience of opposition to both “orange technologies” and mechanisms of withdrawal of subjects from the structure of one country and their transfer to another will be heeded by China in the further development of its policies toward its ethnic peripheries.

The events in Crimea represent a tectonic shift in international relations, for the Helsinki Accords declared the inviolability of borders. It was in part for that reason that Kosovo exited the structure of Yugoslavia but did not join itself to Albania. Here, less than a day passed between the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and its becoming a part of the Russian Federation, avoiding a repetition of what happened in, for example, the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus. In this way, a precedent was created for the transfer of territory between hands – Russia through its actions set such an example. Whether this example is good or bad lies outside the purview of this article. But a definite precedent has been set, which may subsequently become a justification for similar actions in other cases.

In a narrower context, this affects territorial disputes, of which East Asia contains quite a number. It is interesting that in Japan efforts are being made to project the Crimean situation onto the Kuril Islands dispute. Thus, in a conservative-leaning newspaper, the question has already arisen: “What will happen if, first, the Russians give us the Kuril Islands back, and then, the inhabitants create a Maidan with a referendum and reattach themselves to Russia?”

In a broader sense, it affects the whole system of world order. Crimea is a clear demonstration that there are now forces in the world which can openly defy the rules imposed by the USA, or, similarly to America, can use double standards, but in their own interest. We will not say whether this is good or bad from an ethical standpoint, but North Korea, which already considered the norms of the international community to be artificial and based on double standards, may see this as a sign that it can further test the international community’s strength, breaking the rules without facing serious consequences. It may be that we should read Pyongyang’s announcement of a potential plan to conduct a new kind of nuclear experiment in this context.

Here, however, we have strayed from the topic, and we should remember that the penchant for the nuclear missile trump card may play out with serious nastiness for Pyongyang. Firstly, demonstratively ignoring the interests of both Beijing and Moscow at a moment when conditions in the peninsula are not placing grave pressure on the North may substantially complicate North Korea’s relations with the countries that support it. Secondly, the USA may in fact decide that the regime poses a potential threat to them, and begin to take measures to prevent the threat from materializing.

In any case, North Korea has been given an additional ace in the hole via the understanding that in international politics, might makes right. The notion that owning a nuclear weapon is the chief guarantor of security has been strengthened. And this author would very much like to hope that the leadership of the DPRK will be sufficiently prudent to avoid violating, for example, the convention prohibiting nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or underwater.

The nuclear question has another dimension. Let us direct our attention to the arguments of some Ukrainian political scientists that if Ukraine were a nuclear power, nobody would dare give the green light to a change of its borders. This author, in fact, believes that if Ukraine were a nuclear power, no sooner than the first signs of a serious disturbance like the current one appeared would the armies of Russia and NATO be already inside Ukraine’s territory, their presence justified by the necessity of insuring the security of its nuclear facilities and safeguarding against the potential outflоw of its nuclear weapons to international terrorists.

Yet many specialists fail to be fully aware of the whole complex of Russian-Ukrainian problems. And a distorted understanding of the situation may well lead to the proposition that only nuclear status can save the country from regime change or partitioning.

The experts concur in the opinion that the DPRK may take advantage of the clash between the Russian Federation and the West to bolster its military potential for containment of confrontation. This affects not only North, but also South Korea, where the nuclear lobby has a strong advantage, and a whole series of steps have been taken, clearly observable to specialists on the region, toward the creation of the South’s own nuclear missile program.

Next, the Crimean crisis may have an effect on the geopolitical architecture of the region from the point of view of the formation of lasting power blocs, with Russia, the PRC, and the DPRK on one side, and the USA, Japan, and the Republic of Korea on the other. In this new situation we may lose our neutral status (for example, our equidistance from Sino-Japanese disputes will be compromised) and freedom of maneuver. Firstly, the USA will ignore Russian initiatives and attempt to squeeze Russia out of the talks process, justifying this on the grounds that “violators of international law are in no place to adjudicate it.” It is no accident that in the Russian foreign ministry’s announcement of the North Korean rocket launch there is no mention of the fact that it violates international law. There is only a general call to all sides to “refrain from doing this again.”

Secondly, in this situation Russia will be forced to show greater understanding toward the requests of those countries that supported its actions in Crimea. The DPRK will in all probability ask Russia for help, and we will treat its requests with greater attentiveness, including in the sphere of military technology, while China may demand from Russia a kind of exchange: we will recognize your leadership role in regulating the Syrian or Iranian crisis and will support you, and you will likewise support us in the affairs where we “lead.” These, incidentally, include the North Korean question.

Thirdly, if the sanctions regime turns out to be more than a mere ritual, and in fact hits our economic interests hard, Russia will be forced to partially move its ties from West to East. This entails consolidating ties with China.

On the other hand, both the change in the balance of power and the Korean situation are becoming less favorable to the Republic of Korea with regard to forced unification. The geopolitical role of the PRC is growing, and Crimea appears to be Russia’s bid for a new role in the international arena. In these conditions the ties between Russia, China, and North Korea are growing stronger, and this reduces the likelihood of Seoul getting Moscow and Peking’s approval for annexation of the DPRK. Even if the North Korean regime undertakes some bizarre course of action, going against the policies of Russia and China, they will deal with that separately, and will not “feed” the North to the South.

This is all the more true since Crimea has become a moment of truth and the end of illusions concerning the level of cooperation between Russia and the Republic of Korea, still considered a “strategic partnership.” Let us consider the tally of votes at the UN on the resolution condemning Crimea’s self-definition, where the two Korean states voted as they always do: North Korea came out in support of Russia, while the South, following the lead of US foreign policy, came out against.

Let us note that things have typically broken down in like fashion on less divisive questions in the past. For example, when Moscow drafted a UN resolution condemning the memorialization of Nazis as heroes, the North and South voted the same way. But in the past these differences were not perceived as sharply.

Of course, this does not mean that the strategic partnership is coming to an end. Rather it is being replaced by what will simply be “mutually beneficial collaboration,” which will feature neither separate sanctions against Russia from the Republic of Korea, nor any new joint projects between the two states.

There is one other conclusion to be drawn, which relates to how the United States, regardless of technically ubiquitous satellite surveillance, dropped the ball with regard to the “good people of Crimea.” And this may elicit the question whether the States are in fact as mighty and omnipotent as they position themselves to be. On the one hand, this affects discussions of whether American intelligence can provide ultimate proof of a given fact; on the other hand, it affects the perception that the United States will always defend their own homunculi. From another perspective, the decline in Obama’s approval rating and his failure to respond to events in Crimea, leading hawks to speak of a “Ukrainian Munich,” may lead to attempts to raise that rating by means of successes in other quarters, including Korea.

In closing, it must be noted that the supposition that the USA will try to compensate for Crimea in Korea rather than in, say, Syria, remains a supposition, and the author seeks above all to direct readers’ attention to the shape of Northeast Asia’s future and warn against the possibly misleading simplifications of those who judge Russian-Ukrainian relations based only on their surface appearance.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D candidate in History, senior researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the  online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.