[OUTLOOK]Go Beyond the North in Russia Relations

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[OUTLOOK]Go Beyond the North in Russia Relations

Korea's Russia experts call it the "North Korea effect." Seoul is usually indifferent toward Russia, but the minute there appears to be the slightest development in relations or contact between Pyongyang and Moscow, Korea gets nervy, watchful and fidgety.

The phenomenon replayed recently when Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, visited Russia. Already, some are calling for Seoul to hold a high-level dialogue with Moscow - a summit meeting, perhaps - to prevent the North and Russia from getting too cozy.

This tendency may persuade some that South Korea's Russia policy and Russia's Korea policy are both too dependent on North Korea. True. North Korea-related issues have constituted a significant part of Seoul-Moscow relations. When Korean presidents have visited Russia for summit meetings, they have always wanted to take advantage of the former Communist country's influence on the North and to induce it to support South Korea's engagement policies with Pyongyang.

Russia is one of the great powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula. It is also one of the few countries that exerts political, economical and historical influence over the North. There is nothing wrong with Russia being an important tool in Seoul's North Korea policy.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Seoul's Russia policy is so anchored to its North Korea policy that it hinders the comprehensive, even development of the bilateral relationship.

Although it has been 10 years since Seoul formed diplomatic relations with Moscow, the two countries have so far failed to lay firm foundations for long-term, wide-reaching development.

Korea's diplomacy with Russia continues to be confined to patching over problems as they crop up. Many experts in Russia complain that Seoul considers North Korea too much in its relationship with Moscow. Even many Russia experts in Korea express concern that Korea is resorting to temporary measures in its relations with Russia.

The Seoul-Moscow relationship is not so parochial that it can not be locked up in the framework of North Korea policy. Those who have visited Russia even once will have realized the scope of possibilities for the cooperation and co-development of the two countries.

In particular, the Primorsky Kray, in the Russian far east, is undergoing revolutionary changes brought about by an influx of Chinese and Korean people and a dwindling Russian population. Russia is drawing up long-term plans to prevent any particular country from having too much influence over the region and to promote the development of the far eastern backwater.

Considering China, North and South Korea and Japan all suffer chronic energy shortages, Russia is moving, as part of these plans, to create a big energy community by supplying its neighbors with the vast resources and energy of Sakhalin, Irkutsk and central Siberia. The project of linking the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Trans-Korean Railway is a natural feature of these plans.

Japan, China and even Mongolia are interested in Russia's plans. However, Korea still thinks of Russia as a black hole, from which, once sucked in, one can never escape. It is hard to find any evidence of a long-term approach in Korea's policy toward Russia. The tenures of government officials in charge of Russia policy do not last more than a couple of years. Worse yet, many tend to avoid beginning new projects and simply aim to complete their terms without causing any trouble.

If we take a closer look at this region with just a little longer perspective, we will realize that Korea can play a leading role in a big economic community to emerge in Northeast Asia, just as France played a crucial role in the creation of the European Union. In addition, Korea could find a way to break out of being stuck between an advanced Japan and an emerging China.

Korea is facing new challenges. It must get its Russia policy out of the framework of its North Korea policy and implement it in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, Korea will miss the rare opportunity to play a leading role in the new era that is emerging in Northeast Asia.


The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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