Report on the “Present and Future of Northeast Asia” Workshop at Seoul National University

On November 17, 2016 a seminar “Present and Future of North-East Asia: International Relations and Border Issues” was held in Seoul National University (SNU). The seminar was co-organised by the SNU’s Asia Research Center and the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies of Kyushu University. KUBS team members Akihiro Iwashita, Serghei Golunov, and Jong Seok Park took part in the event.

In his keynote speech, entitled “How Border Studies Can Reshape the International Relations: Korea-Japan Collaboration toward the New Era”, the head of the KUBS Team Akihiro Iwashita stressed the importance of new Border Studies approaches as alternative to a West-centric perspective. In particular, for the Asia-Pacific region, the recently emerged disputes over delimitation of maritime exclusive economic zones are of special importance. Apart from this, the presenter paid special attention to comparing the cases of the Japan-South Korea dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo islets and the Japan-Russia dispute over Southern Kuril and Habomai islands. He argued that in these cases, territorial claims are shaped to a great extent by various political concepts, some of which contribute to deteriorated relations between the respective countries.

At the same time, borders could be represented in a more cooperative way as sites of cooperative cross-border contacts. The presenter provided examples of Japanese Border Studies community’s efforts to contribute to strengthening positive representations of Japanese borders, such as 2012 Fukuoka-Busan BRIT XII Border Studies conference and Hokkaido-Sakhalin and Tshushima-Busan field research trips.

Bae Kyoon Park’s presentation “Comparative Observation on the Changes of Border Landscape: Yonpyoung Island and Kinmen Island” highlighted the cases of islands situated near the zones of past and present military conflicts: of Taiwanese island of Kinmen near the mainland China and of South Korean Yeonpyeong islands that lie near the disputed Northern Limit Line. The presenter argued that in these cases military threat led to reterritorialization, in other words to increased strategic importance of the islands’ territories. On the contrary, improved relations between Beijing and Taipei led to perceived deterritorialization and intensified cross-border relations between Kinmen and nearby mainland China’s territories. Now trajectories of the considered islands’ development are divergent: while Kinmen is increasingly oriented towards cross-border cooperation with the mainland China, Yeongpyeong islands still perceive North Korean military threat (this perception was reinforced by 2010 military clash) and pin their hopes with central governmental support.

Serghei Golunov’s presentation “Russia’s Cross-Border Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific: Towards a Coherent Policy?” discussed Russian efforts to make Russian cross-border cooperation with adjacent Pacific states (viz. with China, Mongolia, North Korea, Japan, and the USA) more effective. Initially, the presenter highlighted four globally distinctive patterns of cross-border cooperation policies: EU’s, North American, Chinese, and ASEAN’s. Though Russia tries to adopt some elements of the EU’s and Chinese models, because of the diversity of its borderlands, Moscow’s reluctance to give large power to regions, excessive bureaucracy, and the high level of corruption all serve to reduce the efficiency of both adopting these elements and of introducing some original cross-border cooperation policy. While considering the cross-border cooperation issues present at each of Russia’s individual Asia Pacific borders, the presenter highlighted issues like the prevalence of “Russia’s mineral resources for neighbor countries’ processed goods” trade pattern, Russian economic crisis, and weakness of regional economic potentials in Russia-Mongolia, Russia-North Korea, and Russia-USA borderlands. Russian hopes for the near future are primarily related to the establishment of priority development areas (a kind of free economic zones) in the Far East and increasing Chinese demands for Russian agricultural products.

Jong-Seok Park’s presentation on the “North Korean Nuclear Issue: Its Dynamics and Prospect” conceptualized the options of the key actors involved in the crisis: viz. of the USA, South Korea, China, and Japan. The North Korean decision to obtain nuclear weapons is represented as rational and serving the goal of survival. While the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese interests to achieve Pyongyang’s denuclearization look rather straightforward, the Chinese interests look less straightforward: Beijing also wants Pyongyang’s denuclearization but, at the same time, is interested in blocking the U.S. expansion and is not interested in North Korean destabilization. As South Korea and Japan have to rely on the U.S. military potential, the recent Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections can potentially have serious implications for the North Korean nuclear issue, as the possible U.S. military withdrawal from the region can prompt Japan and South Korea to obtain their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Some other scenarios, under which Japan and South Korea could be deprived of the U.S. nuclear shield were also analysed: in particular, North Korea can choose blackmailing the USA through nuclear proliferation or (in future) by threatening to strike the U.S. mainland in order to achieve the U.S. military withdrawal.

Ik Joong Youn’s presentation “The Development of Russo-North Korean Relations under Putin and Kim Jeong-Eun” analyzed recent trends in relations between Russia and North Korea after Kim Jong-un came to power and Vladimir Putin took the presidential office again in 2012. The presenter argued that Moscow and Pyongyang tried to move bilateral relations to a deeper level utilizing their adjacency. While some visible results (such as restoring the Khasan-Rajin railway route, utilizing it for coal transportation, concluding an agreement on modernization of North Korean transportation network in exchange for access to the country’s mineral resources, and other joint projects) were achieved, some important limitations on cooperation remain. In particular, Russia opposes North Korea’s nuclear program and supported the U.N. sanctions that impose serious restrictions on trade and financial operations between the two countries. In response to a question, the presenter considered implementation of the Transkorean railway project (that could boost Russia-DPRK cooperation) unlikely, at least in the short run, as inter-Korean political contradictions are too serious.

During and after the seminar, the participants discussed various options for developing research cooperation between the Asia Research Center and the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies.

(Serghei Golunov)