As South Korea attempts to navigate the array of sanctions and great power competition surrounding the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean public and academia actively exchange views on the possible roles of China, North Korea, and the United States. However, the lack of attention toward Russia’s role, in both Seoul and Washington, neglects a vital strategic opportunity for regional stability. Contrary to Russia being simply a competitor of the U.S. as an ideological and security foe, Russia has the potential to become a stable partner on the Korean Peninsula, and South Korea should seek a robust economic partnership with Russia.
Connecting Through LNG
Since taking office, the administration of Moon Jae-in has been pursuing a phase out of nuclear energy, which currently accounts for almost a third of the country’s energy supply. As nuclear energy diminishes, imports of LNG are increasing to replace the void. Russia is a large supplier of LNG in South Korea and imports are expected to increase in the long-term. The possibility of importing LNG through North Korea is an extremely attractive initiative for both parties. It is cost-efficient for South Korea in the long run, and Russia will acquire a stable export partner. Russia is also eager to expand its energy supply into Asia as seen in Russia’s 2030 Energy Strategy. The LNG pipeline itself comes with the risk of North Korea using it as a bargaining chip in future negotiations. However, such risks can be mitigated by establishing a common market in Northeast Asia. The pipelines could possibly stretch out to Japan and China, linking the big economies of Northeast Asia together. They will be incentivized to pursue a stable LNG inflow and increase North Korea’s cost of tampering with the pipelines.
Trans-Korean Railway & Trans-Siberian Railway connection
Among inter-Korean economic cooperation plans, connecting and modernizing railways and roads has achieved the most progress and is closely related with Russia. On October 15, in a joint statement made after high-level talks, the two Koreas agreed to start construction on railways in late November or early December. Construction of a Trans-Korean Railway is predicted to foster economic development for both Koreas. North Korea will gain railway infrastructure that is far superior to its current slow single-track system. To South Korea, North Korea provides numerous opportunities in infrastructure construction. The connection will also provide further economic opportunities in trade and tourism.
This also leads to a project to link the Trans-Korean Railway with the Trans-Siberian Railway, directly connecting Korean railways with the Eurasian market. This will provide a cost-efficient and time-saving export line for high-end goods from Korea to Europe. In addition, the Moon administration’s “New Economic Map” initiative incorporates this railway connection as a method to develop and export North Korea’s massive amount of natural resources on the east coast, mostly untouched. Thus, there have been voices from the peninsula and Russia to accelerate railway connection and to lift sanctions on the Rajin-Khasan Project, a key initiative for economic cooperation between North Korea and Russia.
Sino-Russian Relations and Strategic Implications
Sino-Russian cooperation is strategically bound together by common interests and a dislike of U.S. power in Asia. However, the atmosphere between the two “partners” is occasionally chilly, with underlying mutual distrust. Besides having different approaches on the North Korean issue, recent attempts by a Chinese intelligence collection ship (AGI) to gather Russian military information at Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercise shows that there is tension between them. China might see Russia as an economic competitor in Northeast Asia, as Russian economic activity will possibly be welcomed on the peninsula. Since China’s economic retaliation to the THAAD deployment, South Korea has been pursuing a New Northern Policy and a New Southern Policy to diversify its exports. North Korea is economically dependent on China, but this is due to the current political landscape, and economic opportunity from Russia will be welcomed. Russia has in fact been interested in developing its market in the Far East with efforts to draw foreign investment in the region.
In a broader context, stronger economic ties with Russia also has strategic implications for China and the Korean Peninsula. First, China will lose some of its influence in the peninsula. China and Russia both project power through economic ties, and Russia’s engagement could mean a relatively weaker Chinese power in the region. Not only will China have to compete with Russian investment and energy supply, but existence of the “Russian alternative” could deter Chinese projection of power. Second, active Russian participation provides economic opportunities that the Koreas can jointly pursue, increasing the cost of conflict. LNG import and railway connection are both huge gains that can be achieved only through a stable relationship. While there are risks of North Korea blocking LNG pipes or railways, big enough economic gains will prevent ill activity.
What a Closer Russia Means for the U.S.-South Korea Alliance
What does a closer Russia-Korea relationship indicate for the U.S.-South Korea alliance? As a competitor in great power competition and an authoritarian regime, the U.S. would view Russian activity on the peninsula with anxiety, especially now that Seoul and Washington are sometimes seen as being on different pages with regard to North Korea. However, the introduction of Russian economic activity will not fundamentally change the U.S.-South Korea alliance. South Korea is aware of the security benefits provided by the U.S. alliance. Therefore, while disagreements arise on North Korean denuclearization, continued coordination allows the alliance to adjust its pace with each other. President Moon’s peace process is keenly monitored by conservative parties and media, and increased activity with Russia may trigger worried chatter regarding South Korea’s national security. The administration’s approval ratings are slowly dropping, meaning it can become difficult for the it to simply ignore such nervous views. Anxiety over the alliance might require the administration to reaffirm its relationship with the United States too, something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had to constantly do over the course of the peace process to reassure the people.
Currently, South Korea is trying to lead the dialogue on North Korea sanctions and a peace process for the Korean Peninsula. In the meantime, in both Seoul and Washington, skeptical criticism continues over the Moon administration’s foreign policy. Conservative political parties argue that the administration’s efforts to assert an independent regional foreign policy is in turn weakening the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The alliance is valuable, but South Korea may have in part turned a blind eye toward economic options with Russia and strategic implications in inter-Korean issues. The Moon administration’s recent New Northern Initiative is observing such options. South Korea and Russia have already shared aspirations of economic cooperation in nine crucial sectors through summits and high-level talks. The Korean Peninsula now stands in a decisive moment in its peace process. In this process, the U.S.-South Korea alliance must stand strong, but South Korea should explore every possible strategy that facilitates peace. In this regard, promoting cooperation with Russia is a positive step forward.
Sung Young Jang is an Asan Academy Young Fellow and a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
Hansol Kim is Asan Academy Young Fellow and a student at Incheon National University