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.