Moscow and Pyongyang
The mood in Moscow was gloomy. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union after the Ukraine crisis have hit the Russian economy hard. On top of that, the international oil price has plunged from $110 to $80 per barrel during the first half of this year. The value of ruble also nose-dived by 23 percent over three months. The Russian economy may face a crisis.
It was diplomatic isolation, rather than the economic hardships, that hurt Moscow’s pride. Vladimir Putin’s grand quest of a “Great Russia” has become a subject of mockery in Europe and the United States as on a par with the recklessness of Don Quixote.
The mood in Pyongyang was actually gloomier. Strong pressures by the international community, initiated by the United Nations, are directly targeting the leadership of North Korea, including Kim Jong-un. North Korea made efforts to stop the UN Third Committee’s adoption of the North Korean human rights resolution by sending Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong to the General Assembly, but the resolution is now on its way to the Security Council. China and Russia will veto the recommendation to refer the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court, but Pyongyang is displeased that its human rights issues became a major topic in the international politics.
Choe Ryong-hae, a secretary of the Workers’ Party, visited Russia from Nov. 17 to 24 as special envoy of Kim Jong-un and it was a passionate embrace between gloomy Moscow and gloomier Pyongyang. Moscow received Choe warmly. He met President Putin and that was special treatment for the North. Choe delivered a letter from Kim to Putin without going through the presidential office or the Foreign Ministry. What Pyongyang wanted to hear most came from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when he said an international institution must not be a judge or a prosecutor.
Senior Russian officials and businessmen in Moscow after Choe’s visit showed that Russia also is enthusiastic about economic cooperation with the North, as well as trilateral economic cooperation with the two Koreas. Only the South is making excuses to stay out of it. A businessman who has visited the two Koreas more than 20 times complained the South had always said it would review trilateral economic cooperation proposals, but never replied.
A senior official who met with 11 South Korean journalists who attended a discussion on the sidelines of Korea-Russia dialogue, on the condition of not quoting him directly, sharply complained about Seoul’s unwillingness.
South Korea and the United States threw strong punches at the North by holding joint military drills and deliberating a plan to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system. Russia, however, cannot sit idly by with folded arms.
Seoul also made an unacceptable precondition to the resumption of six-party nuclear talks.
While Russia and North Korea are ready for trilateral economic cooperation, the South has not taken any action, and that is a problem.
The gap between the perceptions of Seoul and Moscow is seriously large. It is a crucial time to cooperate with Russia, but the complaints from Moscow were surprising and undesirable.
The most optimistic remark from the Russian official was that a Helsinki Process for Northeast Asia is necessary. His assumption that Europe in the 1970s, when the Helsinki process was realized, and today’s Northeast Asia are similar was exaggerated, but we should welcome the idea of having a multilateral body to resolve Korean Peninsula issues and bring peace and prosperity to Northeast Asia. A Northeast Asian version of the Helsinki Process also could be linked with President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative.
Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, and Alexander Galushka, minister for Russian Far East Development, had high expectations and presented concrete plans for North Korea-Russia economic cooperation and trilateral economic cooperation among the two Koreas and Russia.
On Nov. 24, 45,000 tons of Russian coal arrived at Pohang, South Korea, from Khasan in Siberia through the port of Rajin in North Korea. Both Yakunin and Galushka saw it as the first fruit of the Rajin-Khasan project and a crucial first step for a historic project to eventually link the KTR and Trans-Siberian Railroad.
I agree with their views, but they did not pay much attention to the possibility that economic cooperation can always be interrupted and regress due to the domestic situation of the North. South Korean journalists pointed that out to them, but they gave evasive answers.
South Korea must support a summit between Kim Jong-un and Putin and the expansion of actual economic cooperation between the North and Russia. If the North can rely on a country like Russia, it will refrain from extreme moves. The despair of absolute isolation can always trigger an extreme move for an individual as well as a country.
Russia also has made no secret of its determination not to tolerate a nuclear-armed North, because it shares the interests of other nuclear-armed countries, including the United States, in maintaining the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
It is good to have a country that can check on the North’s nuclear provocations, while at the same time pushing it to go to the negotiation table. A senior Russian official believes the push for trilateral cooperation is a way to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, and that is convincing.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 5, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie