Hugging the Russian bear

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Hugging the Russian bear

Art has sweetened the sultry summer evenings of Vladivostok, the Russian port city near the Chinese and North Korean borders. The First International Mariinsky Far East Festival was held from July 30 through Wednesday at the Mariinsky Theatre under the baton of the theater’s director, Valery Gergiev. Concerts and performances were held in chamber halls of the Primorsky Stage, the House of Officers of the Pacific Fleet and on the deck of the Russian cruiser Varyag anchored in Golden Horn Bay.

The performances featured artists of the Mariinsky Theatre and guest artists from across the Pacific Rim — Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Mongolia, Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States and Puerto Rico. Korean participants included virtuoso pianist Cho Seong-jin, third prize winner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, soloist pianist Son Yeol-eum and ballerina Lee Soo-bin.

Koreans and Russians have long shared a love of art. Valery Gergiev, dubbed the most prominent living Russian artist, is known for his support for — and long-standing friendship with — Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a part of his ambitious vision for the Far East, Putin built an upscale concert hall in Vladivostok bearing the name of the legendary Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg that Gergiev has been leading for over two decades.

Korean names pop up often in the program because the Russian maestro was associated with the PyeongChang Music Festival. It also underscores Putin’s courting of South Korea in his Far East investment plans, with which he hope to revive a Russian economy battered by sanctions by the West following the country’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Dubbing the plan a “historical mission,” Putin established the Far East Development Ministry devoted to developing eastern Siberia and Far East. In May, he signed a law to hand out hectares of land free in 10 regions from the Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, and made Vladivostok and other ports free. The eligible can use the land free of rent, tax and any other expenses for five years. Russia hopes to motivate foreigners — especially South Koreans — with the giveaway.

Russia has been intimidated by China’s colossal population of 1.3 billion on top of its newfound riches from staggering economic growth over the past few decades. Its Far East border with China has a population of 6 million. China has been proposing to connect its
northeastern provinces with Russia’s border ports as a part of its campaign to develop its Northern Sea Route, but Moscow is not that thrilled with the idea. Japanese leader Shinzo Abe has been friendly with Putin, but Tokyo is in a united front with Washington to contain Beijing and Moscow and also has territorial disputes with Moscow over the Kuril Islands.

Korea, on the other hand, poses no military threat to Russia and is an industrial powerhouse, making it Russia’s best business partner to explore and develop the vast and rich mass of land in the Far East. Russia watched how China benefited from its close relationship with Korea. It views Korea as a partner that can help it shake its fear over China’s expansion.

Partnering with Russia would also help Korea, which needs to break its over-reliance on China. Russia could be an alternative destination for Korean intermediary exports, which have been hurt by China’s slowdown stemming from its sluggish exports to Europe following the British vote to exit the European Union.

Results won’t show for some time, but Russia could open up immense opportunities for Korea. Experts are already recommending a joint-venture industrial park near the border of Russia and North Korea like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was shut down due to inter-Korean tensions.

North Korean labor resources could be drawn in eventually when South Korean engineering and industrial activity pans out on Russian land. The high-tech sector like semiconductor makers also could consider establishing a manufacturing base there. Unlike Kaesong, the area is rich with resources such as water and power. The inter-Korean relationship could improve as a result of economic cooperation between Seoul and Moscow.

President Park Geun-hye will meet Putin on a visit to the Far East Economic Forum in Vladivostok early next month. Moscow must pronounce a hard-line stance on how North Korea’s nuclear program threatens regional peace for any progress in forging a deeper economic relationship with South Korea. In 2013 summit talks with Putin, Park said that her vision of creating a railway connecting Korea to Europe would augment Putin’s Far East project.

If the two leaders join hands, they could jointly develop North Korea’s Rajin port as a new hub of trade and transport for Northeast Asia. The East Sea could set the stage for prosperity and peace instead of conflict for Northeast Asian countries. Korea and Russia have common interests. Seoul must not waste the momentum.

JoongAng Ilbo, August 10, Page 31

*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Ha-kyung
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