Speaking in Berlin at the beginning of the month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated his intention to pursue trilateral economic cooperation between North Korea, Russia, and South Korea. Specifically, President Moon revived the idea of an energy pipeline that would originate in Russia and traverse the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, Moon also expressed his hope to unite the three countries through an interconnected rail system.
President Moon’s government has made similar statements on North Korea-Russia-South Korea economic cooperation in the past. Shortly after his appointment as the South Korean special presidential envoy to Russia, Song Yeong-gil stated that the new government in Seoul intended to pursue trilateral engagement.
Moon’s proposal coincides with his campaign platform of reversing the rollback in DPRK-South Korean ties, and enacting a policy of economic outreach to North Korea. The President’s position is couched in the issue of reuniting the Korean Peninsula, yet South Korea extending a hand of economic cooperation with North Korea is also a boon for Russia.
PLAYING BOTH SIDES
One of the constants in Russia’s relations with the Koreas is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s consistent pursuit of balanced relations with both the North and the South.
At the outset of Putin’s assumption of power in Moscow, the Russian president signed a friendship treaty with the then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. By the same token, Putin has consistently pursued close relationships with South Korean presidents of various political stripes, from Kim Dae-jung to Park Geun-hye.
South Korea extending a hand of economic cooperation with North Korea is also a boon for Russia
In 2015, for example, the Minister of Development for the Russian Far East, Alexander Galushka, signed a protocol with North Korean economic minister Ri Ryong Nam. Russia agreed to supply North Korea with electricity, with the hope that South Korea would invest in the project.
Moscow’s pursuance of balanced relations with the Koreas is a stark departure from the Cold War era. During that time, the USSR had a complicated but functioning relationship with North Korea. On the other hand, Moscow did not have diplomatic relations with Seoul until the Soviet Union’s final days.
During the Yeltsin era, when economic reforms and the preservation of Russia’s territorial integrity were the name of the game, Russia’s relationship with North and South Korea was placed on the back burner.
But these days, for Russia, the greatest benefit a whole, stable Korea has to offer is access to greater markets in the Asia-Pacific. In particular, a united Korea would allow Russia to transport goods from sea ports on the peninsula, reducing Russia’s need to use rail systems for overland transport.
This would, in turn, not only facilitate the delivery of Russian goods to various consumer markets, but could also give Russia some wiggle room as China continues to be a rising star in developing infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific.
Nevertheless, as Russia has since been able to devote more time and energy to its foreign policy, it finds itself forced to deal with a Korean Peninsula that remains divided even after the ideological divisions of the Cold War have been consigned to the dustbin of history. This reality is frustrating for a Russian Federation that is keen to take full advantage of the economic benefits that Korea offers.
Moscow’s pursuance of balanced relations with the Koreas is a stark departure from the Cold War era
According to Anna Kokoreva of the Alpari Group, Russia has wanted to build an energy pipeline across the Korean Peninsula since 2008. Yet sanctions and the state of inter-Korean relations have both hamstrung the idea of trans-Korean energy infrastructure. Nevertheless, access to greater quantities of Russian energy would especially benefit South Korea, which is keen to diversify its supply base away from the Middle East.
Russia would also like to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway to a prospective trans-Korean railway system, which, in Kokoreva’s view, could potentially benefit Russia’s Far Eastern regions economically as well.
TALKS ABOUT TALKS
At this point in time, however, discussions over the prospect of trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul are just that: discussions. As of yet, no concrete plans have materialized, and even in the event that they do, the participants will inevitably face some major hurdles.
It goes without saying, however, that the biggest caveat to Russian plans for Korea is stability on the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea and the United States continue their antagonistic relationship, one cannot discount the possibility of a large-scale armed confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
Attempts to surmise how exactly that would play out are best left to professional military strategists. Yet one does not need to be a student of Thucydides to know that a war in Korea would wreak destruction not only in human but economic terms as well.
It goes without saying, however, that the biggest caveat to Russian plans for Korea is stability on the Korean Peninsula
Thus, Russia’s pursuit of trilateral economic ties could go two ways. On the one hand, it may have a small role in helping North and South Korea to peaceably reunite (with an emphasis on small, given Russia’s own lack of economic prowess in East Asia as well as the other major factors, such as the ROK-U.S. alliance).
On the other hand, from a much more pessimistic viewpoint, Russia’s investment of capital – diplomatic, financial, etc. – run the risk of being in vain should a major conflict erupt.
Trilateral cooperation between the DPRK, ROK and Russia is at best a high-stakes gamble for Moscow. Russia has a lot to gain, but has just as much, if not more to lose. Time will tell if Russia decides that the pursuit of economic benefit is worth the risk. That decision will, above all else, depend on the state of inter-Korean relations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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