A Eurasian Bridge Across North Korea?

Russian influence on Korean affairs is often neglected in the West, regardless of the fact that Russia is among the four major global powers whose policies, to a large extent, determine the checks-and-balances system on the strategically important Korean peninsula. One of the latest examples of such an attitude is the public outcry in connection with Russian President Putin’s (who Forbes describes as “the most influential man in the world”) recent visit to Seoul, his first in 11 years. Reports of this visit seemed focused on “Putin’s arrogance,” demonstrated by his reducing the time of his sojourn in South Korea and being late for almost every function (of which, he is notorious so Koreans should not suspect they were singled out or discriminated against). Some analysts even concluded President Putin was showing his dissatisfaction with Korea as well as sending some kind of signal to Japan to act more prudently in East Asia (the countries which aggravate the situation there, implying Japan, were criticized in the joint Russia-ROK statement).[1]

President Park Geun-hye (back right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (back left) attend the signing ceremony to waive visa requirements between Russia and Korea, in Seoul on November 13. (Photo: Cheong Wa Dae)

However, Russian efforts to make South Korea one of its strongholds in Asia and to play a mediator role in securing peace and stability in East Asia deserves more than such a passing dismissal. Putin’s visit included an extensive economic agenda and concluded with 16 documents signed. Two investment platforms (joint funds), each worth US$1 billion, were agreed upon, as well as a joint innovation project in the Skolkovo Techonopolis (a high-tech enclave near Moscow). Other opportunities that were discussed included cooperation in liquified natural gas (LNG) production, South Korean participation in the creation of shipbuilding industries in the Russian Far East, and cooperation in using Arctic routes for transportation.

However, the true significance of the visit lies in the fact that for the first time the two countries found common ground in their respective concepts of promoting Eurasian integration and Northeast Asian security. Russia welcomes President Park Geun-hye’s “trustpolitik” principles, although it remains to be seen how they can be practically implemented. Seoul’s new strategy is important to Russia since it corresponds with Moscow’s goals in its recent efforts to “turn to the East”—that is, to “rebalance” its ties to Asia and the Pacific. The newly-found understanding is also important for South Korea in order to become a more meaningful middle power. It seems Seoul has “suddenly” discovered Russia can be useful for that.

This shared strategy may become a new beginning in the Russian-South Korean bilateral relationship. The honeymoon between the two countries, if ever it existed, is long passé. Although the countries have no history of direct conflict (USSR took no major part in the Korean War; it supported but did not encourage Kim Il Sung) and no bilateral problems of any significance, Russia is still mistrusted by the South. In recent years, due to growing US-Russia polarization, South Korea has been in no position to challenge its suzerain (the US) by being receptive to Russian policy initiatives on Korean issues or demonstrating enthusiasm for Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its position in Asia and the Pacific.

While Moscow and Seoul declared a “strategic partnership”[2] during the administration of President Lee Myung-bak, little was done following this declaration to make the two countries become true strategic partners.[3]

No major agreements were concluded during the half a dozen summit meetings while Lee was in office, nor were there any breakthroughs in economic relations. The two countries differed on most international issues as Russian policy grew more assertive vis-à-vis the West (the analysis of the voting pattern of the two countries in the UN explicitly shows that on most resolutions Russia and South Korea did not vote together). Moreover, Russia opposed Seoul’s efforts to increase its capabilities to produce longer-range missiles, which could reach Russian territory.[4] Moscow watched with concern the strengthening of the US-ROK alliance, in which Korea was seemingly becoming an arm of US military might; an arm aimed at, among others, Russia’s strategic partner, China.

In South Korea, Russia’s role in Korean affairs and its eagerness to be a positive actor are sometimes underestimated: among the four big powers involved in Korean affairs, Russia’s positions and interests are, in general, least appreciated and sometimes ignored.

At the same time, South Korea has long been the third most important economic partner of Russia in Asia and this is something to capitalize on. Bilateral economic cooperation is progressing probably faster than any other relationship with an Asian country (except China) and this cooperation is vital for Russia’s Far East.[5] However, Moscow is concerned that it is perceived by Seoul only as a raw material source and manufactured goods market. Whereas, in fact, Russia supplies not only raw materials, but also high-tech commodities like nuclear fuel, helicopters and space technologies (more than half of the first South Korean space rocket was Russian produced). Russia is also interested in increasing ROK investment, especially in the manufacturing sector in the Far East.

The growing transcontinental and regional agenda might give a new lease on life to Russian-South Korean relations. To overcome existing bilateral limitations and to advance in both the economic and political realms Russian policymakers have, as long ago as the early 1990s, suggested the concept of trilateral cooperation, linking North and South Korea together. Moscow sees this goal as the most promising strategy—both geopolitically and geoeconomically—to promote regional peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. Such projects are seen both as a source of mutual prosperity and as a tool to help the North Korean economy modernize, as well as a way to build mutual trust and improve the political atmosphere.

Soliciting the support of the Park government—viewed in Russia as more pragmatic and less extremist than the previous administration—is arguably the most important overall aim of Russia’s Korea policy. From this perspective, the latest summit was a milestone. In recent discussions in Seoul, I found that such a breakthrough in trilateral cooperation including North Korea was the most exciting and promising result for South Koreans, who have finally come to realize that Russia could play a leading role in transforming South Korea from an “island” to a continental power and into a major Eurasian player.

However, the long-standing prejudice against North Korea limits these expectations. It was news for some of my Seoul interlocutors to hear that North Korea has unequivocally supported trilateral projects for many years and has expressed its desire to participate in them, including construction of a gas pipeline, the building of an electricity grid and the reconnecting of the Trans-Korean Railway to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Pyongyang also has no reservations about receiving South Korean capital via Russia. Especially now, when a new course for establishing free economic zones has been declared by the North with great fanfare, North Koreans are more than eager to use Russian offices to get South Korean investments.

Therefore, agreement on South Korean participation in the Rajin-Khasan Railroad project is widely seen as a milestone. It is worth remembering that Russia initiated this project intended to connect the Trans-Korean Railway with the Trans-Siberian Railway to transit cargoes from Korea and the Pacific to Russia and Europe in late 1990s. The project was given a big boost after Kim Jong-Il’s 2001 visit to Russia. However, since the project did not move forward at that time for political reasons, Moscow acted unilaterally at its own expense. The Russia-DPRK joint venture “Rasoncontrans” undertook a pilot project reconstructing the Khasan-Rajin railroad tracks and building piers at Rajin, costing US$ 340 million. The railroad was officially opened in September 2013, but the actual commercial operation encountered difficulties due to a lack of desire on the part of South Korea to participate.

Now, a little unexpectedly (the decisions were made within few days), a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed that allows Korean companies—such as Posco, Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. and Korea Railroad Corporation—to participate in the construction of railways, ports and harbors associated with this project. President Putin underlined in Seoul that the implementation of the work would reap not only immediate economic benefits, but also that this comparatively modest project could be the start of a large-scale undertaking, creating a land bridge across Eurasia. The Russian leader also welcomed the participation of South Korean companies in creating the transport corridor between Asia and the Pacific, Central Asian countries and Europe. He also stressed that the Russian government had allocated considerable investment for modernizing the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amour route using the Russian Reserve (sovereign) Fund.[6]

Other trilateral projects not in the limelight are also important. Of significance is the fate of the gas pipeline project, which was agreed to at the summit level between Russia and North Korea in 2011. It was to become a real game-changer since the pipeline enhances the energy security of South Korea and brings North Korea benefits without any concessions, or dangers associated with “opening.” The project has been pursued since 2003 (when the Russian “Gazprom” state company and South Korean KOGAS signed a cooperation agreement). In September 2011, the “roadmap” was signed for construction (an investment of US$2.5 billion will be needed, supplying a volume of 12 billion cubic meters per year).[7] The gas pipeline in Korea, due to external (the need to get a connection to the Asian gas market) and internal factors (the need to diversify production and exports as well as to use Gazprom’s existing capacity to build pipelines), was one of the most important Russian economic undertakings in Asia and the Pacific. The project was also critical for Russia’s Korea policy, as it fully corresponded with Moscow’s desire to establish itself as a player on the peninsula. It would help promote inter-Korean cooperation, guarantee stability and assist the DPRK in improving its economic situation, as well as increase the North’s chances for economic modernization.

However, the project became a political hostage, involving not only South and North Korea, but also the US and China. A political decision by the South Korean government (Russia and the DPRK have already explicitly confirmed their readiness to implement this project[8]) to approve the project was never made. Moreover, South Korean importers had insisted on “special terms” that were far from realistic (as if it was only Russia who needed the pipeline). Therefore, “Gazprom” is now building an LNG plant in the Far East, and has been losing interest in the overland pipeline. It is considering supplying the more expensive LNG to South Korea by sea rather than continue to engage in this tug-of-war over the pipeline. Hopefully the summit will now give a boost to this politically and strategically important undertaking.

A similar project, started in 2009, is a power line from Russia’s Far East to South Korea via North Korea. Similarly, due to the deterioration of relations between North and South, this effort was also shelved, although Russia continues to show its commitment to the project.

If the shift in the South Korean approach lasts, other trilateral and multilateral projects could be initiated. For example, South Korean investment could be used for modernizing—with the use of Russian technology—industries in the North once built with Soviet assistance such as metallurgy, building materials and mineral excavation. South Korean companies might also be interested in hiring North Korean workers at their assembly and other plants in Russia. Such a practice would be a valuable example of North-South cooperation in third countries without the limitations of the political realities on the Korean peninsula, in addition to being commercially profitable.

Increased trilateral cooperation could also help promote Northeast Asian security. (The fact that Russia chairs the relevant Six Party Talks working group was also discussed at the summit.) Such cooperation could be a starter for a broader discussion of Eurasian integration, particularly since Russia has now joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russian experts even consider Korea as a bridge to getting access to the burgeoning East Asian Korea-Lapan-China “troika” future free trade agreement. Besides bringing economic benefits that would reduce security risks in the region by increasing economic interdependence, Korea might also be interested in considering Russia as a gateway to the new Russia-initiated Custom and Eurasian Union, seen by President Putin as a major strategic political goal.

During the summit in Seoul, the two presidents not only issued a joint statement aimed at linking the Park-proposed “Eurasian Initiative” and Putin’s “New East Policy,” President Putin also opened in Seoul a monument to the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. In Russia, Pushkin is seen as a symbol of Russian spirit and a national treasure. This monument in Seoul, therefore, emphasizes the new spiritual connection between the two nations, as they strive for a more significant place in modern civilization. South Korea has also become the first among Asian countries in the Pacific to establish a visa-waiver agreement with Russia. So both countries now seem to fit well into each other strategies to make the world a safer and more prosperous place.

[1] Ёси Сато, “Своим опозданием Путин продемонстрировал сильное недовольство настойчивостью Южной Кореи” Sankei Shimbun, November 18, 2013, http://www.inosmi.ru/world/20131118/214898935.html.

[2] Россия и Корея – за стратегическое партнерство, http://actualcomment.ru/theme/1574/.

[3] Ким Ен Ун, “Стратегическое партнерство и образ Кореи вРосси,” http://www.ifes-ras.ru/attaches/conferences/2009_korean_conference/kim.pdf.

[4] Южная Корея достигла новой договоренности с США по ракетам, http://x-town.ru/index.php/component/option,com_dphones/Itemid,0/lang,ru/nuk_n,10203/.

[5] Интервью Посла Российской Федерации в Республике Корея К.В. Внукова радиостанции «Голос России», 18 апреля 2013 года, http://www.mid.ru/BDOMP/brp_4.nsf/sps/E903679F3C26D6D044257B56003EC646.

[7] КНДР интересует трехсторонний газовый проект -http://actualcomment.ru/news/29051/.

[8] Georgy Toloraya, “The Korean Peninsula: Gateway to a Greater Role for Russia,” Global Asia, https://www.globalasia.org:45151/V7N2_Summer_2012/Georgy_Toloraya.html?PHPSESSID=1055fa14ad318a21f5af3ee6121ea439.

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