Treating Russia as integral part of Northeast Asia
“The map of Northeast Asia needs to be changed,” said Chung, chairman of the North East Asia Research (NEAR) Foundation. “Instead of a triangle encompassing Korea, China and Japan, Russia should be included to create a rectangular shape. This is because China has grown so big.”
A group of nearly 50 business, political, academic, legal, media, cultural and literary leaders made a six-day “Peace Odyssey” across Russia’s Far East, bordering North Korea and China, from Aug. 8 to 13, to contemplate peace, progress and unification. It also provided an opportunity for the intellects to reflect on the diplomatic value of the Russian Maritime Province.
Amid Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear and missile provocations, there is concern in Seoul over the contradictions of its alliance with the United States and its growing economic dependence on China.
The South Korean government has tried to alleviate such a dilemma through trilateral regional cooperation between Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, along with parallel cooperation among South Korea, China and the United States.
But, despite its efforts, Seoul faces friction when China has tensions with the United States as well as with Japan.
Adding Russia to the equation can open new doors, observers point out.
Among the major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula, Russia doesn’t have any historical conflicts and is relatively free from any alliance dilemmas, so through advancing its relations with Russia, Seoul can expand its strategic position in Northeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Russia faces sanctions from the United States and the European Union, so it is looking to the Far East for economic expansion.
Korea and Russia could have a mutually beneficial economic partnership.
The population of China’s three northeastern provinces is some 100 million, dwarfing that of Russia’s Far East. In order to block the rise of China, Russia wants Seoul to take part in the development of its Far East region.
However, there are limitations to this proposal. Firstly, Russia pushes for a relationship with the Korean Peninsula as a whole, including North Korea. And there is also concern that if Russia’s relations with Washington deteriorate, it will start taking Pyongyang and Beijing’s side on issues such as the North’s nuclear problem or that of the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. Russia and China have been opposed to the deployment of this U.S.-led antiballistic missile system in South Korea, claiming it goes against their strategic security interests.
Likewise, it is difficult for Seoul to aggressively propose economic cooperation with Russia when the country is facing strong sanctions by the United States.
However, observers emphasize that Russia is too important a country for Korea to give up on advancing relations with just because of such sensitivities.
Despite Russia’s opposition to Seoul’s decision to deploy a Thaad battery to South Korea, Moscow still invited President Park Geun-hye to a two-day Eastern Economic Forum that kicks off Sept. 2 in Vladivostok as its top honorary guest.
On Aug. 10 and its last day, Aug. 13, the Peace Odyssey group took part in two seminars to discuss how to improve relations with Russia, a country considered both “near and far.” The first seminar was held on Russky Island, off the coast of Vladivostok, the site of the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit and host of the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum. The second seminar was held at the Intourist Hotel in Khabarovsk, a city at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers.
“Russia’s interest in its Far East is the product of a national crisis,” said Shin Beom-shik, an international relations professor at Seoul National University (SNU). “There is even speculation that if it just leaves its Far East alone, Russia’s territory will shrink to its land in Europe, while the Far East and Siberia will be taken over by China.”
He continued, “That is why some in Russia prefer South Koreans and Russians be given the same standing to encourage Seoul’s advance into the Far East to stop China’s growth.”
However, he pointed out, “Unless South Korea abandons a call for an absorption-style unification with North Korea, it will be difficult for Russia to cooperate with Seoul.”
This means South Korea has to advance its position by first conveying to Russia that it considers coexistence with Pyongyang, and also needs to advance multilateral cooperation among China, Russia and South Korea, as well as among Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow.
A Seoul-Beijing-Moscow structure can enable energy cooperation that could transport Russian natural gas to China and Korea. Cooperation with Korea, Russia and Japan could likewise link Russia’s Maritime region with the East Sea and Japanese waters to enable the development of the Arctic route.
This could help alleviate the Russian Far East’s dependence on China. It could also be a breakthrough in enabling Korea’s connectivity with the continent and be a new impetus for inter-Korean relations.
However, experts pointed out that Seoul needs to actively reach out to Moscow for such a structure to become possible.
Sung Weon-yong, a Northeast Asia economics professor at Incheon National University, said that when a survey was conducted on Russian intellectuals, asking “Which country is the most appealing?” some 80 percent responded China. In comparison, South Korea came in at 50 percent.
“For Korea to become appealing to Russia, we need to firstly truly recognize that Russia is a different system [state capitalism] from us,” said Sung.
To this, Lee Kyu-hyung, former ambassador to Russia, recalled, “In 1998, when Russia declared state bankruptcy, many foreign companies withdrew from the country, but the Hyundai Group remained. Based on the trust built from that time, Hyundai can achieve rapid growth in Russia.”
Cho Yoon-je, an economics professor at Sogang University and former Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom, said, “As Russia established within its cabinet a Far East development ministry, we also need to create under the president a committee to develop the Russian Far East and enable funds for economic cooperation between the North and South to vitalize investment toward Russia.”
Kim Jong-min, former culture minister and chairman of the Korea Contents Financial Cooperative, suggested cooperation in the areas of science and technology, strong points for the two countries. “Taking into consideration each country’s attributes with Korea, which has a lot of technical skills and Russia, which is advanced in basic science,” said Kim, “a new joint technology research institute should be created which would hasten the two countries’ cooperation.”
But Wi Sung-lak, former ambassador to Russia, pointed out, “U.S.-Russian relations are at the lowest point since the post-Cold War era because of the Ukrainian situation, while Chinese-Russian relations are at their highest point.”
SNU Prof. Shin added, “In a global aspect, Russia, while it is conflicting with the United States, faces a dualistic situation where it wishes to cooperate with South Korea, an ally of the United States, to keep China in check in the Far East.”
Korea could take advantage of this aspect while following the principles of the Korea-U.S. alliance. In that way it can maximize cooperation with Moscow.
Lee Sok-bae, Korean consul general in Vladivostok, said, “Russian diplomacy is of the sort that once it decides its position, it does not take a step aside, and if it sees a weakness, it will hang onto it.” Seoul needs a strategy to take into consideration Moscow’s diplomatic tendencies, he said.
Choi Jin-wook, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, “While Russia is essential to us, there is no need to overestimate U.S-Chinese tensions, leading us to concede too much to Russia [to gain its support]. He was pointing to the need for Seoul to know how to leverage requests such as in regard to the ongoing economic sanctions on North Korea.
To this, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Song Min-sun, president of the University of North Korea Studies, said, “Sanctions on North Korea is a measure that only adds to tension.”
On the other hand, Shin Gak-soo, former ambassador to Japan, said, “Even with sanctions [on the North], dialogue is possible. The United States used this method with Iran.”
“We cannot withdraw the sanctions,” said Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “There is a need for clear sanctions so that the North’s attitude changes. However, if North Korea agrees to freeze its nuclear program, our government can link arms with Russia, and then there will be a need to construct a second, or third Kaesong Industrial Complex in the Far East.”
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