Park must go to Russia

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Park must go to Russia

One important decision the Korean government needs to make soon is whether or not President Park Geun-hye will attend Victory Day celebrations in Moscow in May. The decision should be made in consideration not only of Russia, but also the United States, which has made it clear President Obama will not attend because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be at the celebration, and when Seoul makes its decision it should take into account the possibility of meeting and talking with Kim.

In light of our national interests and principles, Park should go to Russia. That is not because we don’t value the relationship with the United States. The United States is an ally with whom we share the values of market economy and democracy, and we can persuade Washington to understand our position.

Russia is on its way to implementing both a market economy and democracy. But President Vladimir Putin is neglecting precious values of civilized society and democracy by seizing Crimea, invading Ukraine and persecuting political enemies. His authoritarian regime is likely to exercise arbitrary influence with other nations. It could shut off gas pipelines to other countries or boost the economic growth rate to please the president. While experts expected zero economic growth in 2014 at most, due to falling oil prices, Russia’s recent release of official statistics show 0.6 percent growth. It includes unrealistic numbers like 40 percent expansion in the transportation equipment industry. Behind these numbers looms the shadow of Putin, who claims that Russia will not submit to the Western economic system and enjoys an 80 percent approval rating.

Some may think the Russian economy would suffer more because of falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and as a result, its international influence would decrease. But the crisis response capacity of the Russian economy is far stronger than it was during the 1998 financial crisis, and it is not likely to experience another default. Russia has more than $360 billion in foreign currency reserves. Moreover, the government can “order” state-run exporters to sell dollars to prevent devaluation of the Russian ruble.

The most important reason for the president to go to Russia is North Korea. The Park Geun-hye administration’s key North Korean policies like the Eurasian railroad or Duman River development project cannot proceed without the participation of Russia. If the president doesn’t go to Russia this time, it could cause a blockage of communication with Russia just as it did with Japan. If Park doesn’t participate when Kim Jong-un attends the celebrations, Pyongyang would suspect the sincerity of Seoul’s North Korean policy, and it could lead to a deadlock in inter-Korean relations for the rest of her term.

If Kim Jong-un goes to the Victory Day celebrations, his prime motivation would be the economic issues. His purposes would be to avoid being dependent solely on oil imports from China and increase the quota of North Korean workers sent to Russia. Russia’s per capita GDP is more than twice that of China, and North Korean workers sent to Primorsky Krai make several times more than workers in China, providing a substantial contribution to the North Korean regime.

Seoul needs to contemplate what the president should do in Russia beyond simply attending the event. By showing how serious Korea is about ending the tragedy of division, she could encourage the international community to support unification. Using the spotlight of international media attention, she should emphasize to the citizens of the world that the Korean Peninsula is a place where peace is desperately needed. It would be hard to find another occasion with more PR opportunities.

President Park should serve as a messenger of peace. As the leader of a country that had been an imperial colony and divided in the aftermath of World War II, she is in a unique position to validate a message of peace. She must advocate to the Russians that it is more important to celebrate the value of peace than the dream of a powerful nation and create peaceful world without a war, rather than celebrating victory. Looking into the eyes of Kim Jong-un, she needs to propose an end confrontation and promote peace. She should go to Russia and persuade the United States that she is conveying our principles for peace. She should personally show her belief in peace in order to promote the DMZ Peace Park project.

We may have to take arms in order to defend liberty. But the most important duty of the president is to create a nation where we don’t need weapons. The president must attend any event at which she can promote peace. Unification has no value without it.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 5, Page 31

*The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.

by Kim Byung-yeon

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