[OUTLOOK] Putin's Visit Could Open Many Doors

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[OUTLOOK] Putin's Visit Could Open Many Doors

Russian Leader's Visit to Seoul Will Reshape the Future of ROK-Russia Relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited North Korea only two months after his inauguration last July, will finally visit South Korea. It is the first visit by a Russian president since 1992, and the entire world will be watching because it is scheduled before President Kim Dae-jung's visit to the United States in March and the North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il's visit to Russia in April. What will be the specific outcome of the upcoming event, in addition to reconfirming the fundamentals of the "constructive and mutually complementing relationship" between the Republic of Korea and Russia?

As disappointment replaces the overblown expectations which were noised about when the two countries began diplomatic relations in 1990, the ROK-Russia relationship has been the second priority in both Seoul and Moscow.

But President Putin has consistently declared, since the early days of his administration, that Russia will not cede to the United States a monopoly of influence either on the Korean Peninsula or in Northeast Asia. North-South Korean relations have developed rapidly since the historic summit last June, and it was Russia's most urgent issue to reconfirm its balance in relations with North and South Korea.

Russia gives a positive evaluation to President Kim Dae-jung's engagement policy toward the North, and has a great deal of respect for the subsequent changes in the North. It also has high expectations about sharing a common point of view with South Korea regarding the missile defense plan of the United States. Russia firmly believes that Korean Peninsula issues can only be resolved through multinational negotiations led by peaceful talks between the North and the South. Therefore, if the North changes its attitude and the six-way talks in which North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan would participate do eventually take place, Russian policy could easily accommodate negotiations toward establishing peaceful relations on the Korean Peninsula as well as the ultimate goal of Korean reunification.

Russia has even higher expectations for reviving economic relations, and hopes that Mr. Putin's South Korea visit will stimulate trade and investment ties. Russia has been very unhappy, believing that South Korea only took advantage of using Russia as a leverage for approaching towards North Korea, hesitating to accept Russia as a true economic partner.

Russia admitted that its investment environment was unstable and its legal framework not fully established. But Russia has regained political and social stability and its economy has started to bounce back based on strong leadership since President Putin's inauguration.

In addition, as North-South relations have been greatly improved, new opportunities to restore the falling condition of ROK-Russian economic relations have been opened. Russia expects that connecting the trans-Siberian railway with the rejoined railroad between North and South Korea will help revive Russian economy from stagnation. The Russian government also believes that combining Russia's technology and South Korea's capital is the ideal way to build infrastructure in North Korea, including power generating facilities. Russia also hopes to use such technical tie-ups as part of a plan to reduce the amount of debt it owes to South Korea.

What Russia is most interested in is selling arms and weapons. President Putin's top priority is resolving domestic problems, and the next is foreign policy focused on actual gains. He hopes to take full advantage of Russia's prowess as a weapons exporter. That could be sensitive; it is certain that Russia will carefully prepare measures to sell arms to South Korea because it has to consider the reaction of North Korea and because Russia is still holding a bit of a grudge, believing that South Korea took advantage of Russia in negotiations on purchasing submarines in the past.

President Putin's belated visit to South Korea is certainly a promising event. For the first time, our senior leaders will have the chance to meet the new Russian leader up close and to reconsider our position of indifference to ROK-Russian relations in the past.

Taking into account current ROK-Russian relations, conditions on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia and worldwide changes in economic power relations, it is clear that we have some chips to play in the game of negotiations to strengthen relations with Russia.

There will be challenges and the task will not be as easy as we hope, but the chances of a successful outcome are still good. A Russian newspaper once said that our reaction toward Russia's proposal for using its technology for building infrastructure in North Korea will be the litmus test for establishing trust with Russia and with North Korea at the same time. At this point, what is most important is forming ROK-Russia relations based on trust, but it will not be possible without keenly recognizing reality and understanding each other deeply.

The writer, former Korean ambassador to Russia, is president of the Korea Foundation.

by Lee In-ho

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