Vladivostok beckonsFormer President Roh Tae-woo, who is bedridden, is best known abroad for hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics and his rapprochement-based foreign policy. Under the so-called Nordpolitik campaign, he reached out to traditional allies of North Korea, normalizing ties with the Soviet Union in 1990 and then China. The radical idea of shaking hands with war enemies and supporters of the regime in Pyongyang stemmed from practical reasons. Korean industry had reached a correction period in the early 1990s and desperately needed a breakthrough. The Soviet bloc was a promising new market. In July 1988, Roh announced that South Korea would begin engaging with communist countries. A general-turned-president trained to fight communist forces compromised his beliefs for the possibility of finding new opportunities and markets for Korean companies.
A quarter of a century later, South Korea has turned into an IT powerhouse and its per capita income has tripled. But few today would bet that the country will continue to grow and become a global economic power. The once-signature hard work, confidence and perseverance are hard to find among the Korean people. Japan, led by its nationalist prime minister, is marching under the campaign to revive the pre-depression pride of ichioku-sohchu-ryu, which in Japanese means a nation of middle-class people. Under the slogan of xiaokang, or an ideal society of moderate prosperity, China is pushing its 1.3 billion people to drive the world’s biggest industrial powerhouse. The Japanese for the first time in decades have regained confidence and vitality, and China’s dynamic expansion shows no end so far.
Where does South Korea stand amid the changes in East Asia?
As I crossed the Chinese and Russian borders of Manchuria and Siberia last month, I pondered this question and could not find an answer. China has turned Manchuria into one of its industrial bases. Smoke billowed from gigantic factories and high rises covered the skyline. My train ran amidst a forest of high rises. Markets brimmed with merchants. Restaurants displayed all kinds of food. There was life everywhere.
China became the primary supplier of daily necessities to a massive area in Russia. Chinese merchants swarmed the border city on the Chinese side, and the border customs office was packed. Although just a quarter of Russia is in Europe, the country considers itself more European than Asian. But Russia is no match for China in manufacturing and trade. The border city on the Russian side was barren and dismal. The commodities on store shelves gathered dust. Women wrapped in fur and men dressed like Cossacks were noted here and there, but it was hard to guess what they do for living. The Russian ruble was the world’s worst performing currency last year, its value halved by international sanctions and the downward spiral in oil prices. During the train trip between the Ussuriysk and Vladivostok, I noticed just two Korean corporate names - Samsung and Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction. The only local manufacturer that has advanced to Moscow is Korea Yakult. While China is turning Russia into its manufacturing backyard, signs of Korea’s pivot-north policy are nowhere to be seen. The legacy of Roh Tae-woo has long been dead.
It wasn’t that Seoul governments had not attempted to sustain the legacy. But it was mostly for political slogan. Former President Lee Myung-bak was committed to resource diplomacy. It would have turned out differently if he had invested in U.S. shale gas fields or mines in Kazakhstan instead of dubious companies. If she is really sincere about her Eurasia Initiative and plans for industrial development in Russia’s Hassan and China’s Hunchun that border North Korea, President Park Geun-hye should change her perspective first.
The Trans-Asian Railway already is there. It needs not cut through North Korea. The 9,288-kilometer (5,771-mile) railway stretches from Vladivostok. We can arrive there by sea. How we use the established railway is the key. Creating an industrial complex across Hassan and Hunchun is wishful thinking due to political conflicts among the national interests of the three countries. China has secured the manufacturing base, labor and port to stretch beyond the Pacific. North Korea has been invited on board. Russia just watches and does the office-work as its people hate hard labor. Is there a place for South Korea? The clever Russians won’t likely agree to share their interests in Vladivostok with others.
The focal point to Eurasia is not Hassan or Hunchun. It starts with Vladivostok. The central city of the Far East is open to foreign capital and companies. It is a door of opportunity for Korean companies seeking easier inroads to Europe. We must re-employ practical Nordpolitik by using Vladivostok as the gateway. Two decades ago, the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of Hyundai Group, built a hotel in the city. It embodied his lifetime devotion and interest in unification and new markets. Vladivostok beckons us.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 10, Page 35
The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun