“Investment” and “political risk” are perhaps not the phrases that most readily come to mind when one considers the Korea security crisis. Moon Jae-in’s visit to Moscow last month, however, has advanced hopes in both Russia and South Korea for mutually beneficial economic exchanges. This would ideally not take place exclusively in the context of the Russia-South Korea strategic partnership, but would also include the northern half of the Korean peninsula.
With such optimism, however, comes the need for awareness of the potential for losses. Indeed, the flip side of possible inter-Korean economic engagement with the outside world is the sobering reality closer inspection of possible DPRK-ROK-Russia rapprochement yields.
Moscow’s progress in pushing for deeper ties with the Koreas has, perhaps expectedly, caused a certain degree of anxiety within the United States. Some have claimed that Moscow’s inroads into commercial cooperation on the Korean peninsula equates with a loss of American prestige in Northeast Asia. Such views, however, are largely unfounded, if for no other reason than while Russian interests have advanced, the deck is far from being stacked in Moscow’s favor just yet.
The real risk at hand, at least for Moscow and Seoul, is that three-way collaboration will never reach a substantive level in the first place.
The deck is far from being stacked in Moscow’s favor just yet
Moon Jae-in paid a state visit to the Russian capital from June 23-25. There, the South Korean President and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed trilateral economic cooperation between the DPRK, Russia and the ROK.
The meeting, which follows Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang in May, has raised discussions of a dormant policy proposal for constructing an energy pipeline from Russia across Korea. Experts within Russia, however, point out that such a project would take about three to four years to complete.
Railroads have also been a key feature in discussions about inter-Korean economic cooperation with Russia. Alexander Shishkin, a senator from Russia’s Khabarovsk province, recently noted an interest among South Korean firms in investing in the Russian Far East.
Investment could include connecting a railway spanning the Korean peninsula to Russia’s fabled Trans-Siberian railway. Connecting Korea to the Russian landmass by rail would provide a way for Russian energy producers to supply fuel to the Korean peninsula.
There is nothing unexpected about Moscow and Seoul discussing the tightening of their commercial relationship. Both have declared their own policy initiatives aimed at enhancing economic collaboration with each other – the Russian government has been pushing for the building of figurative “Nine Bridges” between the ROK and Russia, while Seoul has been keen to advance its “New Northern” agenda. Likewise, recent state-level discussions between the DPRK and Russia have focused on economics as well.
The New Northern and Nine Bridges initiatives have included North Korea as an indispensable partner for Moscow and Seoul, if for no other reason than geography. Geography, a timeless constant, nevertheless provides little guarantee against the risks inherent in human politics. Moscow has had no problem securing high-level meetings with both Seoul and Pyongyang.
The Russian Federation has generally enjoyed sound working relations with both the DPRK and South Korea, thanks in large part to the Kremlin’s policy of “equidistance” between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Nevertheless, even as Moscow has been calling for trade cooperation on a trilateral basis, the Russian government has continued to pursue discussions with Pyongyang and Seoul on a bilateral level. To date, officials from North Korea, Russia and South Korea have yet to meet together in a single setting with the explicit purpose of discussing three-way exchanges.
The prospect of a direct meeting between the Russian and two Korean heads of state is not terribly distant
Debates among analysts and experts studying the Korean peninsula have long been divided along the fault lines of whether a hardline approach or a cooperative, pro-engagement track is best for resolving the ongoing crisis.
More recently, speculation and uncertainty have arisen over Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in wishing to pursue peace in Korea. Debates and discussions over Korean security and inter-Korean relations are inevitably multi-faceted – issues of denuclearization, economic reform, and human rights are all part and parcel of the current state and future of the Korea crisis.
In the specific context of economic reforms and the DPRK’s commercial openness to the outside world more broadly, the success or failure of simultaneous economic cooperation with Russia and South Korea may shed light on Kim Jong Un’s intentions. It may also be a way for outside observers to measure the pulse of the current spate of rapprochement between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Ahead of the initial Moon-Kim meeting this past spring, senior Russian official Yuri Trutnev claimed that a reduction in inter-Korean tensions could open up possibilities for deeper interconnectedness in the context of the Rason-Khasan special economic zone.
Later the Kremlin expressed optimism following the April 27 North-South summit that the ostensible inter-Korean thaw had positioned Russia to take advantage of collaboration with the Koreas.
The prospect of a direct meeting between the Russian and two Korean heads of state is not terribly distant. Vladimir Putin has invited Kim Jong Un to Vladivostok in September, where Russia’s annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) will take place.
Kim’s acceptance of the invitation would in and of itself be somewhat significant, as it would signal a desire from Pyongyang to reach out to Russia at the highest levels of government. It could also, however, allow Kim, Moon, and Putin to meet on the sidelines of the summit.
The success or failure of simultaneous economic cooperation with Russia and South Korea may shed light on Kim Jong Un’s intentions
The lack of a direct trilateral meeting up to this point doesn’t mean that the atmosphere on the Korean peninsula won’t later be conducive to direct trilateral discussions. Nevertheless, the fact that Moscow has felt it must continue pushing for cooperation with the DPRK and South Korea on a separate, bilateral basis underscores the limits (at least at present) of the current inter-Korean rapprochement.
The Russian Federation and South Korea have long made clear their desires for economic cooperation. This has been one of Moon Jae-in’s earliest policy lines since the inception of his presidency. It is the North Korean government, however, of which officials in both Russia and South Korea cannot be sure. Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul all stand to benefit from increased commercial exchanges.
Progress, nevertheless, cannot come without action. Whether action will produce benefits or induce losses remains one of the major question marks in Moscow’s outreach to the two Koreas.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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