Korea-Russia relations, once frosty, now warm and robust

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Korea-Russia relations, once frosty, now warm and robust


News recently making headlines here that the daughter of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a Korean man are in love and want to marry haven’t been confirmed, but the story is symbolic of an ever-warmer diplomatic relationship between Korea and Russia.

Despite its proximity, Russia, and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, were long known to South Koreans as champions of its former communist ally, North Korea. Nor have Koreans forgotten the Stalin-era policy to force 170,000 Korean residents, known as Goryeoin, to forcibly move to central Asia.

In a more positive light, some Koreans remembered Russia as a rocket science powerhouse that helped Korea send an astronaut into space, or as a country that cherished the memory of Viktor Tsoi, the late famous Russian rock star of mixed Korean descent.

But, as the two countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties this year, their political and economic cooperation is gaining pace significantly.

President Lee Myung-bak visited Russia in September accompanied by many business emissaries, including executives from Hyundai Motor, which built a plant in St. Petersburg to strengthen its already substantial presence in Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to return the visit ahead of the G-20 Summit to be held in Seoul next week.

The two governments are discussing ways to increase cooperation in natural gas and oil, an area in which Russia is strong and Korea is in need.

Russia is also trying diversifying its economy beyond oil and gas and is expressing hopes to receive help from Korea, especially in manufacturing.

The two countries are expected to sign an agreement on temporary employment for Russians and Koreans, which experts say will speed up exchanges of human resources and culture.

“The sense of distance the two countries felt toward each other seems to be dissipating quickly as they realize the potential that each can get from the relationship,” said Lee Jae-young, head of the European team at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. “The two countries have many things to complement each other, so more cooperation will be pursued in a new chapter in the bilateral relationship.”

Korea signed diplomatic ties with Russia on Sept. 30 1990 and established its embassy in Russia in October 1990.

The first Korea-Russia summit was held in December 1990 when then-President Roh Tae-woo visited Russia. Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to Korea in return in April 1991.

Subsequent bilateral summits included the visit of Boris Yeltsin to Korea in November 1992, followed by Kim Young-sam’s trip to Russia in June 1994 and the visit of Kim Dae-jung to Russia in May 1999. Putin visited Korea in February 2001 and Roh Moo-hyun visited Russia in September 2004.

Korean-Russian trade has risen steadily and reached $18.1 billion in 2008, with Korea exporting $9.8 billion and importing $8.3 billion, though the global economic crisis halved it to $9.9 billion last year. As of last year, Russia was Korea’s 15th largest export market and Korea is the 12th largest export market for Russia.

Russia is an appealing market for Korea.

Korea invested $2.38 billion in Russia cumulatively through December 2009.

Around 200,000 Korean descendants live in Russia. Those with Korean nationalities in Russia number around 5,000.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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