Lessons from RussiaMy job requires me to look into the economic value and means of South Korea entering Russia after Moscow embarked on its Far East development campaign four years ago. While poring over various materials on the Far East, I became enthralled by the Korean independence movement across the vast continent of Manchuria and the historical figures involved in the activities during World War II. I expanded my investigation into the historical kingdom of Balhae (698-926) after I watched a documentary on remnants of the ancient kingdom near the region’s community of ethnic Koreans.
During our six-day Peace Odyssey tour of the Russian Far East in September, I was relieved to hear an impromptu lecture by Song Ki-ho, a professor of Korean history at Seoul National University. He said that whenever a place emerges as a new hot spot for logistics among developed economies, books about the history and culture of the region sell like hotcakes. My curiosity about the Far East, in fact, had been normal.
The six-day tour with its lectures and discussions among famous scholars and former bureaucrats was priceless. Soon after I returned from the trip, I was stunned to hear about a railway connection project between Russia and Japan. Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian lower house Duma’s international affairs committee on the sidelines of the J Global-Chatham House-Future Consensus Institute Forum in Seoul. I bluntly asked him why Moscow was pursuing an ambitious railway connection between Japan and the Russian Far East, a project that raises questions about economic effectiveness when it can risk triggering conflict with its neighbors.
Klimov calmly answered that strategic state projects often have value beyond economic numbers. For example, Russia is building a bridge to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that it annexed in 2014, and the project, in terms of the colossal cost and technical difficulties versus foreseeable demand, could be seen in vain.
But Russian engineers in return are gaining valuable technology and know-how in the process. The bridge, he assured, will last for 200 years.
President Vladimir Putin won’t survive until then. A leader must build a bridge for the next generation, Klimov said.
Russia must have launched the world’s first satellite for the same reason. Klimov shared another episode from the past. Engineers from West Germany brought cutting-edge technology and equipment to the Soviet Union to build a milestone pipeline that would deliver Soviet natural gas to Europe, and it was then that Soviet bureaucrats opened their eyes to the technologies of the capitalist West.
A Russian governor had told me something similar a few years back. “The Soviet Union collapsed not because of economic sanctions or other physical pressure,” he said, “but because the elites, after seeing the outside world, believed life would become better without a socialist system.”
The landmark deal on a gas pipeline between the two German states and the Soviet Union was established in 1970. The peak of the Cold War did not interrupt gas supply from the Soviet Union or payment from West Germany. The deal was strongly opposed by West Germans, but it led to many other mutually beneficial economic projects.
Two decades later, Moscow was a full supporter of a reunified Germany. Since Soviet troops were stationed in East Germany, Moscow could have interfered if it wanted to but instead opted to continue economic cooperation with a Germany led by the capitalist West. Such a scenario for unification would be best for the Korean Peninsula as well.
After my Odyssey journey and after talking with Klimov, I thought about the disappointments with the gas pipeline project between the two Koreas and Russia. I can agree that there were many practical stumbling blocks that hampered the project. But what really sinks in is that we lack a bold and visionary leadership with a focus on future generations.
West Germany had a leader that daringly pursued a milestone deal with an enemy state for economic gains. Russia has a leader that pursues costly projects that can bear fruit at least 20 years later. Japan has one that established a bureau entirely devoted to the pipeline and railway projects in Russia and commanded a state lender to carry them out.
Can we ever expect such leadership here? While we are embroiled in wasteful political wrangling, our future place in the vast northern part of the continent is getting smaller and smaller. Once resources projects in neighboring China and Japan pick up speed, the government under the next president here may be without ideas for a policy pivoting toward the Far East. We must come up with our own plan and vision for railway and gas projects with Moscow before Japan materializes its projects.
We must not think lightly and waste the strategic value of Russia, which could help improve inter-Korean relations, establish lasting peace and widen the economic territory for Korea.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 19, Page 29
*The author is a senior attorney on Russia at Sejong Law Firm.