Why is Japan afraid to provoke Russia

North Korea and its neighborsBetween the fear of war and the rattling of sabers

Thousands of soldiers march through North Korea's capital Pyongyang at goose-step on Easter Saturday. The occasion for the mighty military parade is "Sun Day", the birthday of the state's founder, Kim Il-sung. His grandson Kim Jong-un, who has ruled himself for five years, watches the parade from a podium and waves to the soldiers over and over again.

A new ICBM with a mobile launch pad will also be demonstrated. Political observers see this as a message to the USA: Look, we have missiles that can fly as far as California, they are mobile and difficult to turn off before they are launched. Choe Ryong-hae, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers' Party and the informal number two behind ruler Kim, provides the appropriate threats.

"If the United States carries out a ruthless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will immediately counteract it with a devastating blow, and we will respond to all-out war with all-out war and to nuclear war with a nuclear strike."

North Korean nuclear program advanced

Because of such rhetoric, the Western press likes to refer to Kim Jong-un - like his father in the past - as the "madman with the bomb". In reality, North Korea’s leadership follows the belief that only possession of nuclear weapons and the threat of using them can prevent a US attack. North Korea learned this lesson from the US-led war against Iraq in 2003. At almost the same time, North Korea officially resumed its nuclear program. Meanwhile, according to Victor Cha, Korea expert at the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, the program is well advanced.

Military parade in North Korea on the occasion of the 105th birthday of President Kim Il Sung, who died 23 years ago. (AFP / Ed Jones)

"We underestimate the North Koreans. Some say they need another three to five years for an ICBM, but I think it could be earlier. We can no longer just say: There is this crazy guy in Asia. Maybe that was 20 years ago, but not anymore today. "

Kim allows free markets

However, Kim pays a high price for nuclear and missile armaments: the sanctions imposed by the United Nations for this reason are hindering economic development. To prevent popular resentment, Kim allows many approaches to a capitalist economy to flourish, including free markets, which his father suppressed. Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, has observed that Kim is successful.

"There is growth. The North Korean economy is now better. The standard of living has increased significantly, also outside the capital. The general impression is that things are looking up."

South Korea relies on diplomacy

The upswing in North Korea is being attentively registered in South Korea as it makes reunification easier in the longer term. The recently deposed President Park Geun-hye defined this goal for her North Korea policy. But in practice it cut all bridges to the north because of the nuclear and missile armor. The favorite wants to change that in the new presidential election, which will take place at the beginning of May. Moon Jae-in promised during the election campaign that he would ease tensions in the region through talks to stop the atomic bomb.

"We need to achieve the total destruction of the North Korean nuclear forces through multilateral diplomacy and normalize both the inter-Korean peace agreement and relations between North Korea and the US. We need balanced diplomacy by consolidating our alliance with the US while not strengthening our relationship with China damage."

The launch of a rocket is always followed with great media attention on the Korean peninsula. (AFP / Ed Jones)

The demand for balanced diplomacy arises from South Korea's geographic location, close to North Korea and China. In a US military strike against the north, South Korea would be the first victim of a retaliatory attack. North Korea's artillery is 50 kilometers north of the capital Seoul. South Korea is currently installing a US defense system against North Korea's missiles. This upsets Russia and the South Koreans' main trading partner, China. When the first parts of the defense battery were transported to their location in the south on Wednesday, hundreds of residents protested.

South Korea needs the USA

The protest sheds light on South Korea's dilemma: you need the USA as a military protective power and its nuclear shield, but you are at the mercy of it. You need China as an economic partner, but you don't want to belong to its sphere of influence. The tense situation can also be felt in a street survey in Seoul.

"The US is attacking Syria and relocating weapons to Korea. This shows clear war intentions. South Korea should also prepare."

"People just talk, but nothing ever happened. Nobody supports North Korea and I don't think it can start a war by itself."

Japan sees a serious threat

The reactions from neighboring Japan are less relaxed. Several North Korean missiles fell into the sea near Japan's territory. The Japanese Navy then practiced launching missiles together with South Korea and the USA. Representatives from all three countries met earlier this week to discuss the threat. The tension has made many Japanese nervous. The manufacturers of nuclear bunkers and air filters report a sharp rise in demand.

The Japanese government is fueling this sense of threat. The civil defense published rules of conduct for a missile attack for the first time. The first exercises took place at primary schools along the west coast of Japan facing North Korea. In addition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned against a poison gas attack in parliament.

Japan's Prime Minister Abe after talking to Trump. Japan sees itself threatened by North Korean missiles. (MAXPPP)

With the harassment, the Japanese head of government is pursuing two goals: First, he is creating the mood for his constitutional amendment project. The so-called pacifism article allows Japan's military only defensive actions. Abe wants to abolish this restriction. Second, he is making a name for himself as a loyal ally of the USA. Japan fears the hegemony of China and wants to curb it together with the USA. For Japan, North Korea is therefore also a test case for the willingness of the USA to get involved in Asia.

China sees itself as a mediator

China sees itself as a mediator between the parties involved. For the leadership in Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi likes to and often acts as a warning voice on the subject of North Korea.

"The situation is comparable to two trains racing towards each other and nobody wants to give in. Are both sides really ready for a head-on collision? Nothing is more important now than lighting the red warning light. Both trains have to brake."

The trains - that's North Korea on the one hand and the USA and South Korea on the other. China therefore has the role of shining the red warning lamp. The comparison says a lot about how China saw itself in the North Korea crisis.

“Even if China is not at the center of the conflict and does not have the key to resolving the nuclear dispute, China has always insisted on bringing all sides back to the negotiating table. We have seen enough threats and confrontations. We have to find a peaceful and sensible way. "

Sino-North Korean relations have never been so bad

Yang Xiyu also fought for a long time for a peaceful solution. In the Chinese Foreign Ministry, he headed the Korean Peninsula Department for several years. Today Yang works for the renowned, government-affiliated China Institute for International Studies in Beijing. And notes: China's relations with its neighbor North Korea have suffered in recent years.

"The different perspectives of both sides on North Korea's nuclear program have come more and more to the fore. Simply because Pyongyang has changed its position and continues to pursue the weapons program. China's goal is still a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula. That is why Sino-North Korean relations are like that bad as it has not been for decades. "

China's Foreign Minister Wang speaks in Beijing on the North Korea conflict. (AFP PHOTO / Fred DUFOUR)

China's state and party leader Xi Jinping had warned North Korea several times in the past against further nuclear tests. Without success. In February, China announced that it would stop imports of coal from North Korea by the end of the year. Even without any visible effect. Nevertheless, China continues to rely on diplomacy and wants to support new UN sanctions. But the leadership in Beijing is drawing a red line that must not be crossed, says Korea expert Yang.

"China has very clear principles: no war and no chaos. US President Trump says: All options are on the table. If I am to describe the position of China's President Xi, then I say: All options are on the table, except for the military option. That's the difference. But both President Xi and President Trump want a nuclear-free North Korea. "

The dilemma of China's North Korea policy

The Korean peninsula is traditionally a Chinese area of ​​interest. In the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, China supported communist North Korea and helped cement the division of the country. China has had a stand-by agreement with North Korea since 1961, although the mutual obligations have since been reduced. Critics repeatedly complain that China is not making sufficient use of its influence on North Korea. The US government under Trump will therefore continue to try to urge China to become more involved, says the critical Beijing policy expert Zhang Lifan.

"I think the US will apply even more pressure. China is once again in a dilemma with its North Korea policy. They are finding it very difficult to help overthrow Kim's regime in North Korea. But I don't think so either China will prevent it, should South Korea and the US take it seriously. China will not enter a Korean war for North Korea. I rule that out. "

China is supplying North Korea with the energy

Up to 90 percent of North Korean energy consumption is based on Chinese imports. Around three quarters of North Korea's grain imports also come from China. For North Korea, China is by far the largest source of trade and relief supplies. A suspension of supplies could lead to North Korea becoming destabilized and ungovernable. And further sanctions from Beijing seem increasingly likely at the moment if North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons. Foreign policy expert Yang from the China Institute for International Studies:

"If North Korea should do that, China will react. And much more sharply than before. We can't just do nothing when North Korea does something so terrible."

Nevertheless, the leadership in Beijing remains with the official strategy of de-escalating and moderating.

Russia has been North Korea's partner for decades

Russia, which has had relations with Pyongyang for decades, also wants stability. North Korea showed an interest in Soviet nuclear technology for many years; Both sides took the first steps towards working together at the end of the 1950s. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union provided basic materials, says Alexej Arbatow, from the Moscow Institute for World Economy and International Relations.

Russia President Putin at an economic forum in Vladivostock. Relations with North Korea are important to him, as a nuclear power he does not want to see the country. (dpa / picture-alliance / Alexei Druzhinin)

"The first nuclear explosives were made from plutonium, which came from the fuel of a research reactor. The Soviet Union built this reactor because North Korea had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 and had guaranteed inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But then it withdrew from the treaty . "

Moscow's goals are stability and cooperation

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin showed little interest in a close partnership with North Korea and instead turned to South Korea. Under Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, there has been a rapprochement with the neighbors. But it also applies: A nuclear power North Korea in the direct vicinity of Russia's eastern regions is not in Moscow's interest. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week:

"We do not accept Pyongyang's adventurous nuclear and missile operations. They violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions. That does not mean, however, that one can violate international law. I very much hope that there will be no unilateral actions like the one we do all recently seen by the US in Syria. "

Moscow's goals are: stability, cooperation, mutual business. Russia is now one of North Korea's most important trading partners, which gives weight to the word Moscow. The trade data of the past few years show that deliveries of coal and oil in particular have risen sharply. North Korea exports fish and seafood and, to a significant extent, musical instruments to the Russian Federation.

North Korean workers valued in Russia

According to 2015 figures from the Russian Migration Agency, around 30,000 North Koreans work in Russia. They are used on construction sites, for example. Konstantin Asmolow from the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

"North Korean workers are valued because the quality of their work is better than the quality of workers from other countries and the level of crime is much lower. Now that UN sanctions have been tightened, workers' cash transfers are an important source of North Korean income become. "

Trump sent the US aircraft carrier "USS Carl Vinson" to North Korea. (AFP / Aaron Tam)

Both the United Nations and human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the working conditions of North Koreans. Refugee workers reported that they were monitored almost completely. Part of their income is paid directly to the North Korean state.

But Russia is doing more to ensure North Korea's stability. A few years ago, for example, it canceled 90 percent of Pyongyang's debt - more than ten billion US dollars. The remaining ten percent should be offset by the delivery of raw materials such as rare earths. In order to handle the logistics, the state-owned Russian railway company has renovated the necessary route for the equivalent of around 300 million dollars.

Neither Trump nor Kim are known to be reluctant

Whether Russia, China, Japan or South Korea - the neighboring countries are pursuing different strategies towards North Korea, but a common interest has been evident in the past few weeks. Namely, to prevent the outbreak of war. The US allies Japan and South Korea also repeatedly emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution. Because the US and North Korea's military threats could easily set the fuse on the powder keg on fire. Korea expert Lankov is concerned.

"Much depends on how much reluctance both sides show. But neither Trump nor Kim are known for reluctance. Therefore, they risk that even a small exchange of fire could lead to a second Korean War in which hundreds of thousands of people would die."

USA want the financial thumbscrewsattract

This insight now seems to have reached the Trump administration in Washington, too, which now wants to increase political and economic pressure on Pyongyang. Responsible members of the international community - meaning China - should go along with this. One is also open to negotiations. The military option was no longer mentioned. Instead, you tighten the financial thumbscrews. That was announced by the chairman of the congressional foreign policy committee, Ed Royce, this week.

"An additional law will come very quickly. This will cut off some of the currencies for your nuclear program. We will concentrate particularly on financial institutions."

Ten years ago, the United States had taken North Korea financially. This soon hurt the Kim regime so much that they returned to the negotiating table and put the nuclear program on hold. The US government apparently wants to repeat this success.