Denis Bright considers the importance of economic diplomacy in the reduction of long-standing political tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Are commitments by Japan and South Korea to the US Strategic Global Alliance being complemented by routine resources diplomacy with Russia and further normalisation of economic ties with China?
Prospects for longer-term peace in East Asia
If logic prevailed in international relations, seventy years of tensions in North East Asia could be diffused by solutions comparable to The ASEAN Way in South East Asia, based on closer regional economic integration.
Six Party Talks commencing in 2003 have made real attempts at reducing international tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Financial incentives were offered to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) to open its uranium enrichment at the Yeongpyeong Nuclear Plants to international inspection and to control its offensive nuclear testing programme.
The DPRK’s ongoing nuclear weapons programme may have been facilitated by technological links with Pakistan according to Samuel Ramani, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford as explained in a recent article in The Diplomat Online on 30 August 2016.
Regardless of the origins of its nuclear technology, the DPRK has just undertaken its fifth and largest nuclear test.
The DPRK continues to keep up appearances as a legitimate defiant state with slender diplomatic lifelines to both Russia and China.
From outside the DPRK, the cult of the defiant statesman is being challenged by sabre rattling by the US and its strategic allies:
U.S. and South Korean military officials have reportedly been participating in drills this month where soldiers practice removing Kim and his leadership from office should North Korea cross the line from demonstrations into actual attack. The American aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan — which has nuclear power and has three separate air-to surface missile systems aboard — ran drills in the Sea of Japan with South Korean forces for six days this month (International Business Times Online 13 October 2016).
Such initiatives are being supported by the introduction of new high altitude aerial defence systems by the US:
The US military is to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) counter missile battery to the Republic of Korea (RoK) as quick as possible, the White House said on 10 October in response to an official protest.
“The United States is working with the RoK to deploy this system as soon as feasible in order to more safely defend our RoK ally and US military personnel deployed to the region from the North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile threat,” read the statement. A written petition decrying the deployment, created in July, garnered enough signatures (more than 100,000) to warrant a response (IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly Online 12 October 2016).
Representatives from China and Russia met in Moscow on 28 July 2016 to dismiss this high altitude surveillance as provocative and a distraction from essential commitments to the Six Party Talks.
Disastrous flooding in North Korea, particularly in North Hamyong Province near the main transport corridors to the Russian Far East, has provided some distraction from the intensity of political tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the more positive initiatives associated with successful economic diplomacy with both Russia and China.
For the DPRK, its economic ties with Russia have become more substantial.
The importance of closer economic ties with the North eastern coastal Districts of the DPRK has been demonstrated by plans for the opening of the Wonsan Kalma Airport to serve new tourist and commercial markets on 24 September 2016:
A modern airport, which can service more than 2,000 passengers a day, has become Wonsan’s trademark. Wonsan’s streets have been decorated with flowers and bright posters with the words of welcome addressed to the air show’s visitors; numerous foreign tourists; diplomats who work in Pyongyang; employees of foreign humanitarian organizations and foreign journalists (TASS Online, 24 September 2016).
Russia is quite open about its exchange of aviation technology with the DPRK:
A grand air show, the first in the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), will get under way in Wonsan, a port on the country’s eastern coast, on Saturday, a source at the show’s organizing committee told TASS.
The program includes demonstration flights of military and civil aircraft and helicopters; exhibition performances of parachute-jumpers of the Pyongyang flying club and aeromodelling competitions.
Judging from the program, planes, which North Korea has bought from Russia, including the Ilyushin, Antonov and Tupolev civil aircraft, as well as MiG and Su fighter jets, will dominate the air show. North Korean pilots will demonstrate their aerobatics skills. The spectators will have a chance to fly planes of the North Korean air carrier Air Koryo and jump with a parachute together with an instructor. The air show’s program also includes concerts by various song and dance companies and exhibition performances by athletes, including masters of the ancient Korean martial art called Taekwondo, as well as a beer festival (TASS Online 24 September 2016).
Longer-term opportunities still exist for the systematic renewal of closer economic ties between Russia and both parts of the Korean Peninsula.
The reopening of the rail link between Khason in Russia and the port of Rajin in the DPRK on 22 September 2013 was a symbol of the renewed interest in Resources Diplomacy for the Korean Peninsula (Railway Gazette Online 2013).
This resources diplomacy in North East Asia should have been affected by western economic sanctions against both Russia and the DPRK.
With transport links still frozen by rivalries on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea relies mainly on maritime transport to access Russia’s rail corridors to Europe although land transport routes do exist through the DPRK.
President Park Guen-hye also attended last year’s China Victory Parade in Beijing on 3 September 2015. DPRK representatives also attended the event. Ironically, the delegation from South Korea had a higher political profile. Was this a subtle protest from the DPRK against closer economic ties between China and the Industrialized South?
There was also subtle politics in the seating plan at the event in Beijing.
On September 3, while Chinese troops and military equipment paraded through Tiananmen Square and Xi Jinping delivered a ringing rebuke of Japanese military aggression, South Korean President Park Geun-hye watched from a position of honor on Tiananmen Gate. During the parade, Park sat to the left of Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, who was herself sitting to the left of Xi. Russian President Vladimir Putin was seated on Xi’s right.
Park’s attendance was watched with some concern in the United States. Those who believe Park’s administration is “tilting” toward China at the expense of the U.S. pointed to her presence at the parade as proof. The South Korea-China relationship has certainly been an active one — this was Park’s sixth summit meeting with Xi and third trip to China, all since Park assumed office in February 2013.
In their meeting on Wednesday, Xi praised Park for her efforts to improve the relationship, telling her that, thanks to their joint personal support, “the Korea-China relationship has become the best-ever national relationship in history.” As evidence, he pointed to the recently-concluded free trade agreement between China and South Korea, as well as Seoul’s decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (The Diplomat Online 3 September 2015).
Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop missed out on a diplomatic opportunity by failing to attend the Beijing event which attracted representatives from Timor-Leste, Papua-New Guinea and Vanuatu. Hopefully for our political representatives, opportunity will knock more than once to ease seventy years of international tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in developing pragmatic public policies based on commitment to a social market that is highly compatible with currently fluid trends in contemporary globalization.
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