Russian Authors on the Korean Peninsula and on Japan in Joint Publications

25-ia Godovshchina Ustanovleniia Diplomaticheskikh Otnoshenii mezhdu Respublikoi Koreia i Rossiei: rezul’taty i vyzovy (25th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Korea and Russia: Results and Challenges) (Moscow: Aziatsko-Tikhookeanskii Issledovatel’skii Tsentr, Universitet Khan’ian, Institut Dal’nego Vostoka Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, 2015).

Rossiisko-Iaponskie Otnosheniia v Formate Parallel’noi Istorii (Russian-Japanese Relations in the Format of a Parallel History) (Moscow: MGIMO, 2015).

Russian bilateral relations with US allies—the Republic of Korea and Japan—are now deteriorating, but joint academic projects begun several years ago when relations appeared more promising offer insights into how Russian specialists depict each relationship. In both cases there is an unmistakable quadrangular context: North Korea and the United States for perspectives on South Korea, and China and the United States for perspectives on Japan. There is also an unmistakable historical context, especially in the book on Japan, which is divided into 16 parts, pairing authors from Japan and Russia. Each book covers Russian thinking to the second half of 2015, offering insight into responses to the Ukrainian crisis and to Putin’s “turn to the East” centered on China, as Seoul and Tokyo face sharper rebukes.

Joint publications involve conferences intended to narrow differences and find common ground, but these Russian writings serve a different purpose. As in the Soviet era, they justify current government policies, look back in time to make the most one-sided case in accord with current, official historiography, and show no sign of collaborative exchanges to try to grasp the reasons for differences. What is made clear is a shared, Russian worldview, reflecting the period before the North Korean nuclear test of January 2016 and before the Putin-Abe summit of May 2016. There is no sign here, however, that these recent developments—agreement on the Security Council resolution 2270 and on a “new approach” to find a breakthrough in relations—will be consequential in altering an increasingly negative view of how Japan and South Korea have been treating Russia or conducting their foreign policy.

Russian-South Korean Relations

The world is at a crossroads in responding to North Korea. On the one hand, many think that Security Council resolution 2270 coupled with strong unilateral sanctions is a game-changer—serious sanctions at last that, over time, can pressure the North to return to the negotiating table with at least some prospect of implementing the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, if not of complete denuclearization. On the other, there are prominent voices in Russia and elsewhere that put the burden on Washington and Seoul to rethink their approach to Pyongyang. This is the message in Russian chapters of a joint Russo-Korean book, which addresses fundamental issues, such as who is most responsible for the North Korean nuclear crisis, what should be the next steps to resolve it, how would an outcome affect security in Northeast Asia, and what is the necessary path to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. In a book on South Korea, Russian views of North Korea and what is required in South Korean foreign policy toward it captures most of the spotlight.

Part 1 on maintaining security in Northeast Asia and South Korea-Russia relations leaves no doubt that Seoul must cooperate with Russia, strengthening relations in the interest of its international status. Park, it says, needs Russia or trustpolitik, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), and the Eurasian Initiative—three of her signature programs—will fail. There is no hint that Russia needs South Korea or that the latter’s need should be conditioned on Russia’s own behavior. Strong disappointment is expressed at Seoul’s cooperation with the sanctions of Western states since 2014, which have not allowed widening bilateral cooperation in foreign policy and security. The promise of Putin’s November 2013 visit to Seoul was not realized, when setbacks occurred in ties between high officials, readers are told. The failure to realize a true strategic partnership could lead to a crisis, the Russians add.

Such warnings do not assume that South Korea is hostile to Russia, but that it is not yielding to Russian pressure. Claiming that earlier it was cooperating successfully in diplomacy and security (if not in trade and energy), the chapter sees a turning point.

At each stage since the 1990s, it was the need for cooperation on Pyongyang that led Seoul to Moscow, readers will surmise. Kim Young-sam in June 1994 raised the level of relations with security in the forefront in the midst of the first nuclear crisis. In 1996 to 1998, relations were more troubled, but Kim Dae-jung transformed them in 1999 to boost his Sunshine Policy. While Seoul by 2003 was failing to keep various promises to Moscow, Roh Moo-hyun’s visit in September 2004 in search of a joint approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program saw an upturn in relations after reconstructing Russia’s debt to South Korea. Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s great power status (including closer ties to North Korea) led to strengthening ties to Seoul with new emphasis on overlapping positions on security in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Indicative of this was Sergei Lavrov’s visit to both North and South Korea at the end of April 2009 and then Russia’s support for supposedly tough sanctions after the North’s second nuclear test. Russia seized this chance to champion Six-Party Talks in order to accelerate the search for a regional security framework and found South Korea amenable to planning for big projects across the North, as if they would change its thinking on nuclear weapons and missiles. For the next five years the book claims successful relations with Seoul—a fiction based on Seoul looking the other way as Moscow boosted ties with Pyongyang, both sides claiming to have the same security interests, and undue optimism concerning big projects. Opposed to serious sanctions, Russia insisted that the answer is stepped up diplomacy with Pyongyang even when the latter was intent on its nuclear program.

Russian reasoning on economics includes the following: economic engagement of North Korea increases peace and stability; the Sunshine Policy of 1998-2008 was a success and should have endured; separation of economics and politics remains a promising strategy: economics first, politics later worked and would continue to work; improved North Korean economic conditions foster openness and reform; and closing the Gaeseong Industrial Complex was a mistake. It further supposes: new, unconditional inter-Korean dialogue is desirable to build trust; Seoul needs good relations with Moscow to influence Pyongyang favorably since Putin has rapidly improved Russo-DPRK relations; Moscow sees these ties and the triangle with Seoul as critical to development of the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia and Russia’s entry into the economic structure of the Asia-Pacific region; and Park has let her “Eurasian Initiative” vanish in thin air, leaving her state a de-facto island in Asia.

Warning that Russo-ROK relations could be in crisis, the book blames Park for: failing to attend the Winter Olympics despite her country preparing to be the next host; refusing to allow high officials to go to Russia when they might meet high North Korean officials; refusing a return visit after Putin’s 2013 trip to Seoul; intending to suffocate North Korea; quieting embargoing new, large-scale projects and refusing to finance already agreed or discussed projects; yielding to strong US pressure on sanctions against Russia, but doing so quietly from fear of damage to South Korean economic interests in Russia and to the balance of Russia’s relations to the two Koreas; trying to strengthen its own security at the expense of others, as it destroys the basis of bilateral cooperation and adds to regional insecurity. In the chapter of Alexander Zhebin, one reads that the approach by Seoul to relations with Moscow is now under the influence of the egoistic geopolitics of third countries.

Konstantin Asmolov argues that ideological interests are more important than geopolitical ones for the Korean question. He regrets that Korea often has not been a priority for Moscow, and that Moscow made concessions without supporting the North Korean regime prior to Primakov’s rise in the second half of the 1990s and, in the process, institutionalizing Russia’s influence. In various Russian chapters South Korean conservatives are demonized for viewing Russia’s role on the peninsula historically as rapacious and subscribing to the myth of an eternal Russian threat. Moscow’s past role on the peninsula—over 130 years—is instead glorified.

The chapter of Sergei Luzianin and Liudmila Zakharova contrasts a Sino-Russian approach to Northeast Asia to a ROK-US approach, insisting that Seoul must move to normalize relations with Pyongyang rather than taking the wrong course as it is doing. They favor financing Silk Road projects in North Korea, which China in the spring of 2015 is said to have invited the North to join, but they warn that 75 percent of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Band (AIIB) members would have to vote in favor and South Korea is a member that would oppose it. The message about denuclearization is clear: no need to mention it now since it should be addressed after other problems are solved.

The Russian chapters portray a widening Russo-ROK gap in 2014-2015. Russia pushed more vigorously for triangular economic projects, cancelling the North’s state debt in May 2014, announcing a project “Victory” to reconstruct the North’s railroads in October 2014, and sending a high official to Seoul in December to press for this triangle and for investment in the Russian Far East. Investing in long-term plans for the development of the Far East is even called necessary to prove that this is an equal partnership, as complaints also appear that the South Korean market must be open not only to Russian resources but to its technology. Neither Russian nor North Korean responsibility is indicated for South Korea’s unwelcome behavior.

The Park administration is faulted for being part of a closed military alliance posing a threat to the security interests of neighboring states, for economic policy that is not mutually beneficial, for diplomatic rudeness, and for policies toward North Korea that only aggravate peace. This viewpoint makes it clear that Russia is intent on satisfying North Korean interests as well as South Korean ones, is assertively opposing the ROK-US alliance and putting pressure on Seoul to shift away from it or risk Russian retaliation, and is pushing for a path to unification far different from what the Park administration has in mind. Key steps are integration of a triangular economy, priority for a multilateral regional security system, and concentration on diplomacy with denuclearization only a distant prospect, as if it matters little. Despite Russia agreeing to new sanctions on March 2, Russians reiterate this reasoning.

Russian-Japanese Relations

Emphasis here is given to the final four chapters by Russian authors, three of which are written or co-authored by Dmitry Strel’tsov, covering the periods after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They comprise not much more than 10 percent of a 1022-page book, but they convey what the preface calls the “accumulated weight of historical negativity” and “tendentious evaluation of…historical events.” Unlike some Russian writings of the 1990s on bilateral relations, these chapters offer no hint of what Russia should do to improve relations except to vaguely blame stereotypes and tendentiousness from both countries.

Describing the current image of Japan in Russia, the book finds that a traditionally high level of sympathy for Japanese culture (traditional for the older generation and pop for the younger generation) was countered by the statements or votes of Japanese politicians on the “return of the Northern Territories” and, more recently, by the strong pressure due to “illegal sanctions” against Russia. School textbooks also convey historical memory of Japan at the end of the nineteenth century striving to strengthen itself in Manchuria on Russia’s border, of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, of Japan’s military intervention in the Soviet Far East, and of the military battles with Japan in the late 1930s. Acknowledging that the textbooks omit the fact that the islands in question were never occupied by Russia prior to 1945, the book excuses Russian assertiveness on the islands in 2010-2011 as a response to sharp anti-Russian statements by Japanese, leading even to plans to remove visa-free travel arrangements there in place for 18 years. Omitted is recognition that Japanese did not know that statements made about the islands—typical of those over three decades—would be interpreted as sharp anti-Russian remarks, and that intensified assertiveness on the eve of Putin returning to the presidency must have had some other explanation. Thus, the drop in the ratio of positive to negative public attitudes toward Japan (15:2 in 1995, 10:3 in 2007, and 4:3 in 2011) before the response to the sanctions testifies to a deeper sense of disappointment stirred against Japan (not as intense a drop-off as in attitudes toward the United States—9:1 to 2:3 over the same period—and an inverse relationship to attitudes toward China, which in 2011 finally caught Japan in regard to Russian attitudes).

Although by the time this book appeared Abe had been pursuing Putin for two and a half years in a mood of hope in Japan, it is not conveyed in these Russian chapters. Japan was hinting at a compromise deal and increasingly exploring economic cooperation at a time Russia was in great need of it. Indeed, the Abe administration had toned down rhetoric on the islands, while broadening discussion of how security and economic ties could be enhanced. Yet, the Russian side, taking its cue from the top officials, was hardening its narrative about the islands, as in the claim in this book that they were taken as an act of retribution for Japan’s aggressive policies. The book exaggerates the US role in creating the issue in 1956 and in claiming that it actively supported and continues to support the demands of the Japanese government for the islands, as if both are revanchists for reexamining the results of the war. Whereas before Japanese were obsessed with this one issue, this book shows the Russian obsession with it and with the significance of victory in WWII.

A different tone is taken toward the period 2000-2010. Then, we read, Russia sought a balanced regional approach, finding challenges from China and accepting the US-Japan alliance as a source of balance. Problems of Japanese complaining about third countries receiving permission to extract marine resources near the islands and of harsh treatment of Japanese fishermen are mentioned, as is the slump in relations in 2002 after the Suzuki Muneo scandal, but the article insists that in East Asia Russo-Japanese interests coincided or were close, e.g., in denuclearization and management of the Korean Peninsula. This misleading statement, repeated often since Putin pledged to strive for a breakthrough with Abe, ignores Russia’s earlier tilt toward China and strategic move toward North Korea. Despite the fact that trade tripled from 2003 to 2007 and was increasing again after the financial crisis, the authors bemoan its structure—oil and gas and other natural resources from Russia in return for cars from Japan, many sent from its European factories and not registered as Japanese exports. Unrealized potential in economic ties, security, and humanitarian affairs are attributed to “remnants of the past,” not to Russian hubris about easy oil and gas money nor to recalculations about security that increasingly relied on China, dismissing Japan. In recalling the 2000s, Russians exaggerate the positive side of relations with Japan, as with South Korea, then insist that Abe as well as Park presided over a downturn, when neither leader—notably Abe—had any such intention.


In the early 1990s, South Korea and Japan were welcomed as new partners to anchor a turn to the East, to develop the Russian Far East, and to provide modernization know-how. North Korea was seen as an albatross for security, economic, and humanitarian reasons. Moscow failed to entice Seoul, which many soon blamed on its policy toward Pyongyang, and Tokyo, which they kept blaming on its historical revisionism. Now it is pressuring Seoul using Pyongyang and playing hardball on the islands with Tokyo while pressuring it using Beijing as well as Pyongyang. While Russian joint editions with South Korean and Japanese authors imply a search for common ground, they focus instead on giving one-sided renditions of parts of the past and uncompromising treatment of how to find mutually satisfying paths forward. There is no hint of optimism in these writings.

A striking feature of these two books is the absence of exchanges on recent developments where authors seek common ground. The Russia-Japan book is better in its coverage of some earlier periods, for which the editors take satisfaction that certain stereotypes have been challenged from both sides. Historians are driven more by the search for truth than Russian analysts of recent events, who subscribe to a top-down narrative reminiscent of Soviet publications. Undertakings such as these do not point the way to increased trust.

The quadrangular context is raised at times: Washington bears heavy responsibility for bad past relations and current deteriorating relations between Moscow and its allies; an inverse relationship exists between Russian attitudes toward China and Japan, and Seoul is at odds with both Moscow and Beijing in its treatment of Pyongyang; and since 2014 there is new urgency for Tokyo and Seoul to choose between two clashing approaches to regional security in a changing great power context. Harsher judgments than earlier on how these US allies have addressed Russia’s concerns should be taken as warnings.

The historical context finds little hope in the developments of the 1990s that encouraged Japanese and South Koreans, instead reverting to reasoning of the Cold War era—victor and defeated state, no greater legitimacy for South Korea than North Korea, human rights are irrelevant, exaggerated threats (backed by little evidence), and etc. These books are steeped in a narrative about the past, which rejects the principles of the post-Cold War era and denies paths to compromise to resolve current challenges. They are a wake-up call to Japanese who claim that a foundation exists for Putin and Abe to reach a breakthrough and to South Koreans who consider Russia helpful in resolving the North Korean crisis.