Increasing tensions between North and South Korea have the greatest implications for Russia’s efforts to engage its East Asian trading partners and develop the Russian Far East.

South Korean protesters with defaced portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and North Korean flags shout slogans during an anti-North Korean rally in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. Photo: AP

Last week’s mutual shelling on the border between North and South Korea was the most serious development in the inter-Korean standoff in recent days. A new phase of confrontation on the Korean peninsula would have implications for all regional and extra-regional actors, including Russia. For now, the crisis appears to have been defused, but tensions continue to simmer.

Conflict on the Korean peninsula has been simmering for decades

However strange it may seem to Western analysts, the pretext for another armed incident between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea should come as no surprise to anyone. Up until August 20, the two sides regularly used loudspeakers to broadcast state propaganda to each other. And both Pyongyang and Seoul have a history of reacting extremely negatively to such acts of “people’s diplomacy.”

The root cause of the mutual belligerence between the two Koreas lies in the fundamental incompatibility of both their principles and politics. The once united country was divided shortly after the end of World War II. That was the consequence of the Korean War (1950-1953), which involved the great powers both directly (the U.S., China) and indirectly (the Soviet Union) and resulted in the so-called 38th parallel, separating the North from the South. The Cold War may have ended almost a quarter of a century ago, but one of its offspring is alive and well.

The two Koreas have an uncompromising attitude to each other. But it is North Korea — whose ugly totalitarian, nationalist-communist regime, Juche ideology and dynastic “red monarchy” have been discrediting the entire international left movement for decades — that is mainly responsible for the growing confrontation on the peninsula.

Evidence thereof is the ultimatum-like tone of Pyongyang’s recent official statements about its readiness for “total war” if the South does not stop its loudspeaker broadcasts. And it should not be forgotten that since 2006 North Korea has had a nuclear bomb, while in 2012 the constitution of North Korea was amended to include an article on the “nuclear status” of North Korea.

According to St. Petersburg-based Korea expert Irina Lankova, the North Korean regime uses its nuclear program not only to improve its economic situation through leverage and blackmail, but also to “ensure the external conditions to maintain its security and internal consolidation.”

North Korea has the potential to destabilize East Asia

Even without the Koreas, East Asia today is not a stable geopolitical region. There is still no Russian-Japanese peace treaty. The “Taiwan question” could reemerge at any moment. And in recent years the territorial claims of China and neighboring countries in the South China Sea have intensified. But the “nuclear factor” makes the long-standing Korean conflict the most dangerous. That is well understood by all players in the Asia-Pacific region.

The recent statements by the North Korean ambassador to Moscow that “the United States wants a conflict on the Korean peninsula” are nothing more than a propaganda stunt. The Obama administration has repeatedly shown willingness to compromise with Pyongyang, and Washington’s rapprochement with Tehran and Havana demonstrate that this line of policy is not a mythical beast.

However, for the sake of global stability the United States is firmly opposed to North Korea having nuclear weapons. Moreover, Washington offers security guarantees to its main East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, whose “historic reconciliation” U.S. diplomacy has worked hard to achieve over the years.

Japan, too, is anxious. Falling debris from North Korean ballistic missiles is a common sight on Japanese islands, and Tokyo sees the regime of the young dictator Kim Jong-un as one of the most serious threats to its national security. Of course, such flare-ups on the Korean peninsula only serve to reinforce the Japan-U.S. alliance and are grist for the mill of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in its plans for military expansion.

Recommended: "How Russia, China and the US can denuclearize North Korea"

As for Beijing, North Korea’s main external and economic partner (according to Korea expert Andrey Lankov, China accounts for three-quarters of North Korea’s total foreign trade), Pyongyang’s erratic behavior is becoming increasingly irritating. Beijing has repeatedly urged its neighbor to abandon its nuclear weapons and become more moderate. Yet in the complex geopolitics of East Asia, China remains a strategic partner for Pyongyang and still fears South Korea’s intimate military and political ties with the United States.

The talks, which nevertheless went ahead between the Koreas on August 22, show that a military solution to the status quo is not a foregone conclusion. According to Chinese expert Wang Junsheng: “I don’t think the situation is out of control, since neither of the Koreas wants a war.”

Russia’s role in preventing a Korean confrontation

For Moscow, the unresolved Korean conflict has been a severe headache for more than half a century. The Soviet Union itself had a hand in the division of Korea and once helped prop up the regime in the North, which today is one of the world’s most totalitarian. But in the last decades of its existence, the Soviet Union kept military-political cooperation with North Korea to a minimum.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was clear that the Kremlin would pursue a differentiated policy on the Koreas. During the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin, Russian diplomacy was heavily involved in mediating what turned out to be an unexpected and successful rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang. Perhaps East Asia once again needs the mediation of Moscow (and Beijing)?

Even if Russia cannot help worrying about America’s military presence and potential siting of THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea, Moscow’s relations with Seoul are generally much healthier than with Pyongyang. Russia’s foreign trade with South Korea is an order of magnitude larger than with the North. The last two decades have seen a flourishing of cultural, scientific and sporting ties between Russia and South Korea, and the “Russia-South Korea Dialogue” forum takes place at the highest level.

However, the Russian Foreign Ministry hopes that the hastily convened talks between the North and the South “will lead to a resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and serve to normalize the situation in the region.”

It turns out that the echoes of artillery fire on the Korean Peninsula are audible in Russia. The country has a common border with North Korea in the region of the urban locality of Khasan. The center of Primorsky Krai, which borders North Korea, is Vladivostok, a major ocean port city, whose smooth functioning is crucial for trans-Baikal trade in Russia. 

The Russian authorities have tried to make the region’s seaside resorts attractive to residents of European Russia. But the proximity of a fickle nuclear regime and the occasional skirmishes on the Korean peninsula are clearly not helping to develop the Russian Far East.