[Viewpoint] What Russia means to usA white three-level pagoda stands on a small hill on Jeongdong-gil. It marks the site of the Russian legation and was built in 1890. Immediately after Queen Min was murdered by the Japanese, King Gojong took refuge in the Russian legation. When you climb up the hill, you realize that the Russian legation was located in the best spot in downtown Seoul.
From the spot on the hill, you can see Deoksu Palace, Gyeongbok Palace and Gyeonghui Palace. In photos from the late Joseon period, the Russian legation building looks like a colossal fortress on top of the hill.
Why did King Gojong give such a prime real estate to Russia? It was a desperate move. Yuan Shikai, who was seven years junior to Gojong, gained power in the royal court and threatened to depose the king. Japan offered to help Joseon escape the influence of the Qing Dynasty but murdered the queen in the middle of the night. Gojong was fearful of being poisoned, and only ate food prepared by the wife of an American missionary, whom the queen had trusted. Gojong secretly called in Russian soldiers and fled the palace on a winter morning in the palanquin of a court maid. Gojong relied on the power of Russia to resist Japan’s imperial aggression.
After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union made a critical impact on Korea’s history. After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States each occupied one half of the divided Korean Peninsula. Then, the Soviets gave North Korea the nod to begin the Korean War.
The Soviet Union later became Russia again. Though Korea and Russia signed diplomatic relations 21 years ago, Russia still is a distant country. Just as I grew curious about the country, I had a chance to visit Russia last month to attend the Korea-Russia journalist exchange program sponsored by the Korea Press Foundation.
Russia is a big country. From the airplane, I could see the endless stretch of Siberia. Roughly 170 times the size of South Korea, the vast continent-sized country is covered with forests, meadows and lakes. Scenic beauty aside, the abundant natural resources buried in the vast territory are enviable.
When you stand on the ground, you cannot fathom its size. When you drive it, you face an endless horizon. When you are on a sleeper train, you wake up to see the same scenery you passed the evening before.
Russia is also a powerful nation. It has natural resources and advanced technology. The Republic of Bashkortostan is a sovereign state in the Russian Federation located in the southern part of the Ural Mountains. It is 1.5 times the size of South Korea and has a population of 4 million.
It might look like a rural region on the surface, but it has abundant oil reserves. The engines for the Sukhoi fighter jets are also produced here.
Moreover, Russia is a diplomatic power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It is involved in international politics surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Hiroshi Egashira, a Japanese Russia expert, discusses an episode that was strangely unreported in Korea in his book, “Putin’s Empire.”
The inter-Korean summit between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was made possible through the mediation of Russia, Egashira claims.
In February 2000, Russia’s foreign minister came up with a clever idea during a visit to North Korea. Russia would support the modernization of the North’s industrial facilities and charge South Korea for the cost. In return, Pyongyang would host an inter-Korean summit. When Pyongyang agreed, Moscow presented the plan to the South Korean government. In response, President Kim Dae-jung made the Berlin declaration the next month, expressing his intent to aid the economic reconstruction of North Korea.
The summit took place in June, and Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea in July for the first time as head of state. Russia does not work as noisily as China.
Russia needs Korea. The politicians, journalists and scholars I met in Russia emphasized the development of the Far East. Their attention was focused on sales of oil and gas from Siberia. They hope to develop the Port of Najin in North Korea, repair railroad lines and build gas pipes to transport resources to South Korea and Japan. To make the project successful, Russia needs stability on the Korean Peninsula.
We also have reasons to get close to Russia. Russia made great efforts to get close to the South, virtually ending its military alliance with the North. However, Putin was disappointed at Seoul standoffishness and bolstered his country’s relationship with Pyongyang after he came into power in 2000. Nevertheless, Russia still wants tighter relations with the South. The geopolitical climate in the region is becoming similar to that of 100 years ago, with China making a comeback. It reminds us of the dreams and frustrations of Gojong. To Korea, Russia surely is a useful card.
*The writer is the senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Byung-sang