Russia Eyes Korean Peninsula
Image Credit: South Korean President's Office

Russia Eyes Korean Peninsula


Despite the Russian Federation’s obvious geographic claim to Pacific nation status, East Asian nations generally haven’t viewed it as a major regional player. This is in part due to the traditional European focus of Russian leaders, but also the fact that Russia simply doesn’t have the strong economic and institutional ties necessary to make its presence felt in East Asia.

But recent Russian moves suggest it’s hoping to change this perception.

Of course, Russian policymakers have already worked hard to maintain a central role for the country in the Six-Party Talks, a framework that, like the United Nations, bolsters Moscow’s claims to great power status. But this month Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took the opportunity ahead of the G-20 meet in Seoul to underscore some key points in his country’s Korean diplomacy.

Russian officials have frequently stressed their opposition to North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons. This is hardly surprising—they don’t want yet another nuclear-armed state bordering their country, especially one that’s armed with inaccurate missiles and that’s ruled by an erratic, dynastic dictator.

In addition, Russia fears that North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles could encourage further nuclear proliferation in East Asia and beyond, as well as the spread of missile defences in response—neither of which would enhance Moscow’s security. With this in mind, the Russian government has voted in favour of UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Pyongyang cease testing missiles and abandon its nuclear weapons.

Medvedev brought much the same message to Seoul. During his stay, he reaffirmed through a dozen or so bilateral agreements and various statements the importance of developing economic links between the two Koreas and Russia, the need to maintain peace across the Korean Peninsula and the importance of resuming the Six-Party Talks and ending North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Indeed, it’s the economic realm—so often overlooked by the international media—that’s seeing some of the most interesting developments. For example, Russian entrepreneurs envisage converting North Korea into a transit country for Russia’s energy and economic exports to South Korea and other East Asian countries. They also want to sell additional items to South Korea and secure high-technology investment from the country.

Although the Russian and South Korean economies are similar in size overall, they have quite different strengths—bilateral commerce primarily involves Russia exchanging its natural energy resources, mostly oil and natural gas, for South Korean machinery and equipment.

As a result, economic ties between the two countries have improved considerably in recent years, especially in high-technology sectors. According to the latest figures published by the Korea International Trade Association, two-way commerce amounted to $12.4 billion in the first nine months of this year, 20 percent more than for the whole of 2009. Medvedev said Moscow hopes bilateral trade will exceed $17 billion for the entire year.

Mladen Matosevic
November 20, 2010 at 07:05

Critical precondition for Korea’s reunification will be removal of all foreign troops. China will be in this sense lot more sensitive then Russia. And with North Korean regime gone, US troops in South Korea would have equal sense as Soviet troops in Poland 1990.

Rebuilding of North Korea would be nearly impossible by South Korean financing alone. Luckily, unlike in time of German reunification, there are not so many countries in Eurasia with so dire need of investment. China and Russia are likely to be among large investors too as do not wish large humanitarian hardship on own back yard.

Philipp Ivanov
November 17, 2010 at 07:26

Dear Richard,
Thanks for the excellent and timely analysis of Russia-S.Korea and broader Russia-Asia-Pacific relations, a theme that is often ignored in the foreign policy research and commentary. You have rightly noticed a recent push by the Russian policy makers to reinstate Russia’s North-Asia position of power. Although it faces a lot of problems mostly to do with rather poor economic development performance of the Russian Far East, Russia does have a good opportunity in the next 2 years to improve its position in Asia. Firstly, on both symbolic and practical levels, hosting of the APEC 2012 Summit in Vladivostok will boost the investment (largely domestic at this stage) into often neglected region of Primorskiy Krai (where Vladivostok is a capital) as well as attract attention to this part of the country. Secondly, inclusion of Russia together with the US into East Asia Summit will allow the government to have a regular presence at what’s shaping to be a major Asia-Pacific forum. Russia has already demonstrated that it can utilize this event to reinvigorate its ties with Vietnam and Indonesia through nuclear power and arms deals. Thirdly, it makes sense for Russia to invest into its major bilateral relations in East Asia, particularly Korea in order to balance what is now China, US and Japan ‘shared’ dominance of the region. If Russian perseveres with this strategy while continuing domestic economic development of East Siberia and Far East, it will have all the cards to strengthen its Pacific presence and be an active player in the region.

R. Jordan Prescott
November 17, 2010 at 02:24

Excellent article in 2009 Summer Parameters addresses Russian interest in Korea very thoroughly as well:
Cheers, RJP, House of Marathon

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