A golden opportunityRussian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to bring the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting to Vladivostok, Russia, in September this year was scoffed at by his government members, domestic scholars, companies and traditionally pro-West media organizations. They saw through Putin’s favoring of the vast port city overlooking the Pacific Ocean over more likely places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin’s APEC summit in Vladivostok — not far from the borders of North Korea and China — would be a symbolic declaration and celebration of ending the centuries-old ties with the European Continent to start the country’s new future among the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region, which account for more than half of the world’s population and trade.
Putin ordered First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov to draw up a blueprint for establishing a state enterprise to develop the vast lands and resources of Siberian and the Far Eastern region. The ambitious project required an investment pool of $100 billion in public and private capital from home and abroad. But the bill to create the state corporation for special territorial preferences in investment and development, an effort to draw private funds, was disrupted by the Finance Ministry led by former Minister Alexei Kudrin and incumbent Minister Anton Siluanov.
We thought few could challenge Putin. But he, nevertheless, had to compromise with the conservative pro-European faction. Instead of launching an ambitious new state enterprise, Putin settled for creating the Ministry for Development of Russian Far East headed by Victor Ishayev, the Governor of the Khabarovsk region and presidential envoy for the Far Eastern Federal District, giving him administrative authority tantamount to the finance minister in spearheading socioeconomic development of the Far East region. The world’s longest cable-stayed bridge connecting the mainland of Vladivostok and Russky Island resort, where the summit will take place, symbolizes the city’s new role as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific. A convention center will be renovated to house the Far Eastern Federal University, a prestigious university focused on Far Eastern studies, after the summit.
Putin, reinstalled as president after serving four years as prime minister to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev, turned his eyes to the Far East in sync with the Asian “pivot” policy by U.S. President Barack Obama, in response to the widening influence of China that now challenges Russian hegemony in its own territory. The concentration on northeast Asia by global powerhouses presents Korea and other regional countries with new challenges and opportunities. Russia envisions Korea as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific and we should ask ourselves if we are ready to take on the new role. The vast scope of Far Eastern and Siberian territories near the North Korean frontier, just a two-hour flight away, beckons with rich resources and opportunities in diplomacy, security and on the economic front. But Russian experts on Korea are skeptical of Korea’s potential and capabilities of capitalizing on the boon.
Mikhail Titarenko, director of the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is an expert on Korean affairs who played a key role in normalizing diplomatic ties between South Korea and the Soviet Union, and was responsible for drawing up the framework of relations with the communist state along with Kim Lyun-joon, former president of Hanyang University and Kim Young-jin, an honorary professor at George Washington University. When I met Titarenko two weeks ago in Moscow, he said he was disappointed by South Korea’s diplomatic relationship with Russia since they normalized ties in 1990. Russians are disillusioned about South Korea because it failed to honor pledges in Siberia, including a transcontinental gas pipeline that would cross North Korea. He believed the South Korean government and companies backed out of the investment in Siberia due to U.S. opposition.
He said he was not alone in such a theory. In the summer 2012 issue of Global Asia, the East Asia Foundation’s journal on international affairs, other Korean experts, including Nodari Simonia and Victor Sumsky, claimed that the U.S. interfered to spoil Russia’s ambitious idea of delivering natural gas from eastern Siberia to China and South Korea through pipelines across North Korea whenever progress has been made in talks. There is no conclusive evidence to the suspicion, but questions have been lingering as negotiations have been dragging with few signs of progress.
With his reinstated power, which is more or less assured for the next 12 years, Putin is staking Russia’s future on the development of its Far Eastern and Siberian regions. Regardless of resistance and opposition from liberal elites on his home turf, Putin will likely push ahead with his Far East crusade in Asia, which will most likely emerge as the main stage for the three traditional powers — Russia, China and the U.S. — in their contest for power and influence.
In the meantime, the Lee Myung-bak administration has focused diplomatic and security resources entirely on the U.S. It has chained itself too intricately to the U.S. and it cannot get closer to China, despite its ever-growing clout. We are seeing all the mess from the fallout of an over-reliance on Washington.
In the long run, South Korea must seek a diplomatic balance with the U.S., China and Russia. While sustaining the status quo with Washington, Seoul needs to enhance and deepen its relationship with Beijing, while turning to economic opportunities on the Siberian horizon. Through business commitment in Siberia, we can gain more leverage on North Korean affairs through Russia, which could also water down China’s role in the area.