Developing Seoul`s partnership with Moscow


Korea Herald, February 22, 2008




Lee Myung-bak was elected president on the conservative platform of strengthening relations with the United States. He faulted Roh Moo-hyun for neglecting those relations for the sake of inter-Korean relations. Nevertheless, there are grounds to expect that, on Lee`s watch, South Korean ties with Pyongyang could become stronger, and the process of Korean unification might gain new momentum. Lee has developed the reputation of a pragmatist who acts on the basis of domestic and international realities, rather than ideological convictions.


Domestic support for strengthened ties with the North is considerable, and there are also international factors that encourage Seoul to be more proactive in its contact with Pyongyang. One of those factors is the recent rise of Russia, which is sympathetic to the idea of Korean unification, if only for reasons of averting the nuclear threat and balancing China`s ambitions in the region. South Korea and Russia also have a considerable potential for cooperation on issues outside unification. As time goes by, Russia may emerge as an important political and economic partner for South Korea.

South Korea and Russia have several overlapping interests and considerable capabilities for developing cooperation in at least three areas: security, economic modernization and regional stability.


In the area of security, the two countries` interests coincide and include denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Both countries also understand that a comprehensive denuclearization must bring North Korea out of political isolation, with the ultimate objective of a mutually agreeable unification of the two Koreas. Of value here is Russia`s growing political clout on the international scene, which reflects its recent recovery from an economic depression and a seemingly permanent political crisis of the 1990s, as well as the Kremlin`s special ties with the North. In June 2007, the latter helped to break the Joint Agreement`s impasse over the transfer of North Korea`s frozen funds. The Kremlin arranged for them to go to a Russian bank after the U.S. Federal Reserve received them from Macao.


In the area of economic modernization, the two countries need and compliment each other as an energy consumer and an energy producer. Although its energy markets, which account for about 50 percent of foreign trade, are primarily in Europe, Russia confirmed its determination to build additional energy pipelines with Asian nations. Two of them will connect Russia and China, and run through China and South Korea. With half of the world`s population and a fifth of global trade, East Asia`s status adds to Russia`s legitimate interest in becoming an important player in the region. Some Russian officials even estimate that, by 2020, 30 percent of the country`s oil exports would go to Asia, compared with the current 4 percent. In addition to developing trade in oil, gas and nuclear energy products, the two countries might consider exchanging shares in large companies, and jointly exploring Russia`s vastly underdeveloped Far East and Siberia.


Finally, there is the broad and sensitive issue of regional stability, part of which is related to rise of China. Both South Korea and Russia are keenly interested in either preserving the existing power balance or making even greater room for their own participation in shaping the region`s future institutional architecture. Russian officials, for example, have long been wary of Japan and the rise of China, and have favored an independent and unified Korea as an ally in balancing the two nations` ambitions. Given its broadening power, however, it is only a matter of time before China demands a greater role in determining the outcomes of negotiations with Pyongyang regarding Korean unification and the structure of economic deals in the region. South Korea and Russia are well aware of this, and must think ahead about steps that may be necessary to prevent China`s excessive dominance in East Asia.

A good strategy for retaining and broadening cooperation with Russia is to incorporate it in more meaningfully into its strategy for maintaining regional stability. South Korea may continue to rely on the United States in stabilizing the region, but this strategy has two important deficiencies.

First, Washington may not have any interest in sponsoring unification on terms that are favored by most Koreans - that is, without a regime change in the North and on a step-by-step basis. The experience with Iraq and the revolutions in Europe and Central Asia demonstrate what kind of transformation Washington might favor. And, if Iraq and other regime changes were destabilizing in their outcomes, then a similar development in North Korea will undoubtedly have be even more devastating for the Korean peninsula. Even if the new administration takes a different approach from the one favored by President Bush, it is unlikely that Americans will not influence Korean choices regarding the shape of their national institutions, the sources of funding for reconstruction, the structure of their military forces, and other aspects of national policy. Great powers rarely stay away when they have an opportunity to shape history.

Second, it would be impractical to plan long-term stability for the region by relying mainly on the United States, given the undeniable decline of its reputation among Koreans, as well as the United States` limited ability to manage a growing China, and continuing pressure from Pyongyang.

A better strategy would combine three central elements. Preservation and improvement of ties with the United States must remain as one of them - no matter who comes to the White House this year, he or she will be very interested in managing China`s rise, thereby creating some conditions necessary for Koreans to pursue an independent course of unification.

There is also no alternative to continuing with the best elements of the "Peace and Prosperity" policy of the Roh Moo-Hyun administration, given the support that it had among the population. Indeed, polls taken during the last several years indicate that Koreans favor improved relations with the North over all other foreign policy issues, and that they are strongly prepared to side with North Korea in case of an attack by the United States. In 2005, only 31 percent of Korean respondents said they would support their ally the United States, in case of a unilateral attack on Pyongyang, while 47 percent said they would support North Korea. Only a pragmatist might be capable of combining the potentially divisive U.S. and North Korean components of the strategy in a way that serves Korean national interests and avoids an unnecessary confrontation.

Finally, it is essential to strengthen the component of Russia`s support, given that country`s growing role in the region and the fact that the Kremlin shares Seoul`s aspiration to minimize interference from the United States and China in the process of unification.

There are two errors that must be avoided here. One is underestimating Russia and viewing it merely as a useful political supporter of unification. Recent history has shown that the country has been able to regain its role in world politics much faster than many had expected. Russia`s potential in solving issues of regional stability, such as nuclear security and economic modernization, is only going to grow. For instance, in addition to the projected oil pipelines, the Russian government is planning a massive state-run expansion of its nuclear power industry, much of which will be for export purposes. Given the current overwhelming energy dependence of North Korea on China, this expansion may help diversify sources of reliable energy support for Pyongyang.

The other error would be to overestimate Russia, and begin viewing it as a potential threat to the existing fragile balance in the region. Russia`s international assertiveness remains pragmatically focused on economic recovery, not on throwing power around. It is aimed at improving Russia`s competitive advantages in the world economy, establishing a diversity of customers, and achieving greater international integration. The reality is that, next to China, Russia increasingly looks like a middle power, in economic terms, and South Korea would do well to think about combining the efforts of two middle powers, in order to address the challenge of a rising great power.

Outside of providing political support for unification, Russia`s role in Korean efforts to strengthen regional stability could be meaningful in two ways. First, Russia could become an important contributor to the development of East Asia as an economically interdependent region. The Korean national oil company, for instance, has good experience in cooperating with Russia`s oil giant Rosneft in developing the West Kamchatka shelf, which is estimated to hold about 900 million tons of oil equivalents at 26 sites. The deal could become a model for expanding cooperation by continuing with joint exploration in the Far East and Siberia. Russia`s energy reserves are impressive, but cannot be developed without considerable additional investment from outsiders. Offering Russia membership in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum also might be helpful in making the most of its economic potential in the region.

Secondly, Russia may assist in the process of political institutionalization in the region. Relative to Europe, East Asia is in an early stage of regional institutionalization. There are the existing six-party talks, which have achieved some impressive results in managing nuclear crises on the Korean Peninsula. There is also the potentially promising trilateral cooperation involving Russia, South Korea, and North Korea. Assuming relative stability, Russia has expressed interest in three developments: the link of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Trans-Korean Railroad (the so-called "iron silk road"), the East Siberian gas pipeline from Irkutsk`s gas-condensate field, and the supply of electricity from the Russian Far East. All three projects potentially tie the three nations together, thereby preparing the ground for a smoother unification of Korea.

Russia and South Korea also share the attitude of strengthening the multilateral framework within and outside the region. In East Asia, the two nations have consistently advocated multilateral solutions to the nuclear crisis with North Korea, and contributed considerably to creating the six-party format for dealing with the crisis. Russia has showed its commitment to multilateralism by systematically opposing NATO`s military intervention in Yugoslavia and America`s war in Iraq, on the grounds that those campaigns lacked the support of the United Nations. The Kremlin also opposed any efforts to solve difficult international issues regarding Iran`s nuclear program and the status of Kosovo outside the sphere of international negotiations, with all relevant participants involved. In addition, Russia has developed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with China and four Central Asian states, to address the threat of terrorism and the security vacuum in the area.

Beyond the six-party talks and the promise of the South Korea-North Korea-Russia triangle, there is much work ahead to turn East Asia into an economically and politically viable region. Still, it has already developed the important advantage of being gradual and inclusive in its institution-building. Contrary to NATO, which pursued a hasty expansion and "forgotten" to include Russia, East Asia ought to continue proceeding by fully including North Korea in the process of negotiations and accommodating its interests as much as possible. Gradually, the six party talks may develop into a more meaningful organization with more diverse and expansive economic, political and security commitments. In this regard, it is crucial to firmly resist the idea of being included in a "global NATO" - the plan that is currently fashionable in Washington as a way of extending the United States` security control beyond the European continent - as that may be both politically divisive and harmful to the region`s own institutionalization