Growing North Korean belligerence may force Russia and Japan to change their current approach to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute and seek out new approaches for an official postwar peace treaty.

South Koreans pass by as TV news shows an image of North Korea's ballistic missile. Photo: AP

On June 22, North Korea launched two mid-range Musudan missiles. The first one failed to travel any notable distance, while the second one managed to travel approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles) before landing in the sea. As expected, officials from across the region as well as the U.S. State Department have condemned the launch as yet another provocation.

Notably, U.S. analysts have differed in their treatment of the incident, with some suggesting that North Korea may be getting closer to having a working mid-range missile. For example, Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies has called the missile launch "progress" in contrast to previous failures. Officials from the U.S. Department of Defense, however, have noted the fact that the second missile's range fell far short of the 3,000 kilometer (1,864 miles) range for which it was designed, and was unable to accurately hit an intended target.

During a meeting between Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Mogulov and Japanese Ambassador to Russia Takihito Harada, the two sides exchanged their views of mutual concern over the missile launch and vowed continued cooperation on the issue at the United Nations as well as within other multilateral organizations.

The two sides had originally met with the intention of conducting talks regarding the lack of an official peace treaty between Japan and Russia dating back to the Second World War. Yet, according to Ambassador Harada, the talks were diverted toward the more immediate concern of North Korea's latest provocations.

The fact that prospective Russo-Japanese peace talks and the North Korean missile launch were happening at the same time provides an opportunity to analyze the limits of the so-called "compartmentalization" of the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute between Japan and Russia. This is an issue that is distinct from yet closely related to the lack of a postwar peace treaty between the two countries.

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The notion of "compartmentalization" in Japan-Russia relations is essentially the belief that Japan and Russia can cooperate on various bilateral issues such as trade and cultural exchange, as well as regional and even international security, while not getting bogged down in the persistent disagreement over the four contested islands between the two countries. This ability to separate the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories from other issues against the overall backdrop of the lack of a formal peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo is all the more important.

In many ways, compartmentalization is fundamentally a good thing. As Japanese and Russian officials both recognize the mutual benefits to be had in a working Russo-Japanese relationship, to let one issue derail other areas of cooperation would be unfortunate for both sides. In this particular instance, the fact that the two sides were able to shift their focus from the original intention of the meeting to the latest North Korean provocations underscores that Japan and Russia are indeed able to cooperate on pressing regional security issues.

This is particularly true given the overall pessimistic outlook among analysts of Japan-Russia relations at the prospect of overcoming this issue. Scholars and researchers attribute several problems to the resolution of the conflict, including domestic nationalism and Japan's alliance with the U.S. Nevertheless, one consistent outlook is a lack of hope that the two sides can reach an agreement that will be to the liking of both parties.

Japan and Russia's coordination on North Korea, the success of which is in and of itself difficult to measure beyond the metric of consistent talk of cooperation, is no substitute for tackling the territorial issue head on. To be sure, Japan and Russia have made several strides in their relationship in recent months and years, from a large number of high-level visits between Japanese and Russian officials to, more specifically pertinent in this case, a consistent track record of communication to North Korea's security provocations throughout this year.

Nevertheless, one must not enter into a false sense of hope that Japan-Russia cooperation on issues such as North Korean security threats means that the two sides will ultimately be able to resolve their territorial dispute. The change in focus of the most recent high-level meeting between Japanese and Russian officials was, in light of the gravity of the situation, a good thing. It would be careless of either side to insist on sticking with the original agenda when issues of more immediate concern are brewing.

While compartmentalization does allow Japan and Russia to work together on issues of mutual concern and benefit, it will ultimately not solve the lingering bilateral disagreement. The best that the stakeholders in Japan-Russia relations, and Northeast Asian security in general, can hope for is that continued cooperation between the two sides ultimately paves the way for greater rapprochement. Yet if the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute is increasingly treated as a separate issue from other areas in the bilateral relationship, it may ultimately make the resolution of the disagreement even more problematic.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.