Signaling the Bear’s attempt to claw a place for itself in East Asia, the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) has been an annual opportunity for Russia to assert itself as more than a mere geographic appendage to East Asia. Scheduled to take place between September 11-13, this year’s gathering of leaders, however, has the potential to be unlike any other.
During his visit to the North Korean capital in May of this year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov passed an invitation from Vladimir Putin along to Kim Jong Un asking the latter to join the Eastern Economic Forum this year.
True to form, Kim has played it close to the vest. Not only has the question of Kim’s presence in Vladivostok next month kept outside observers in suspense, but has also had some bearing on whether other leaders decide to show up. Russia’s Kommersant cited an anonymous diplomatic source as stating that whether Moon Jae-in would visit the EEF would depend in large part on whether or not Kim accepted Putin’s invitation.
At best, there have been a few nuggets of information suggesting that Kim may answer the Russian government’s invitation with a resounding yes. Reports emerged in late July that one of Kim Jong Un’s private jets traveled to Vladivostok, although this information has been disputed.
Later in the month, however, Air Koryo temporarily increased the number of flights between Pyongyang and Vladivostok, again fueling speculation that North Korean and Russian officials may be laying the groundwork for a visit by Kim.
WILL HE, WON’T HE
But the lack of a clear answer on whether or not the North Korean leader will actually show himself Vladivostok doesn’t mean it’s not worth contemplating the circumstances and potential outcomes of such a visit. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, it could end up being a meeting of the majority of heads of the former Six-Party Talks member states.
Should both Kim and Moon make an appearance, Russia will likely be focused on trying to push forward with economic projects
Yet despite the fanfare that the North Korean leader’s journey to Russia would likely kick up, there is reason for little more than a degree of highly cautious optimism as to what is achievable from a potential meeting of heads of state in Russia this coming September.
From a regional vantage point, the prospect of several Northeast Asian heads of state convening in one location has raised hopes that the EEF will provide an opportunity for progress toward a longer-lasting resolution to the Korean security crisis.
There is little reason, however to think that having five of the heads Six-Party Talks member countries in one location, even sans the United States, will bring about any demonstrable progress. If discussions that were specifically convened with the purpose of resolving the Korean security crisis failed, then it takes a lot of faith to entertain the idea that a forum focused on commerce could help boost inter-state security discussions.
Indeed, the purpose of the Eastern Economic Forum is just that – economic. Within the span of a few days, there will be a lot of ground for Russia to cover with multiple parties. With the two Koreas, should both Kim and Moon make an appearance, Russia will likely be focused on trying to push forward with economic projects, including rail lines and energy infrastructure.
Sino-Russian discussions may or may not broach the subject of how both China and Russia can benefit from commercial cooperation with the DPRK and the ROK.
In terms of the potential benefits for Russia to position itself as a peace broker and regional leader, this is not the time for raised hopes, either. The Russian Federation hosts the Eastern Economic Forum from a position of attempting to gather more investment for its underdeveloped Far East. Investment in Russia’s East Asian territories is a critical strategic goal for Moscow given Russia’s lackluster position in the Asia-Pacific.
The forum may itself provide a reason for the various heads of state to meet, as well as serving as a geographic venue. But it doesn’t translate into Russia suddenly becoming an indispensable player in the multi-party interplay over the Korean security crisis.
There will be a lot of ground for Russia to cover
It is not only the short time and emphasis on trade issues undermine Moscow’s potential to exert a notable influence on regional dynamics subsequent to the Eastern Economic Forum. Russia’s own behavior of late in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula raises serious questions as to what extent Moscow is truly interested in being a peace broker in the region.
ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
Shortly after a seemingly smooth meeting between Moon Jae-in and Vladimir Putin, the Republic of Korea Air Force intercepted Russian jets flying in ROK airspace. The action subsequently prompted Seoul to lodge a complaint with the Russian government. More recently, Moscow has taken up a more aggressive posture against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the ROK.
The Russian government’s decision to express anger directly at Seoul contrasts with trends in the Kremlin’s response to THAAD. Previously, the Russian Federation had demonstrated a more understanding attitude toward South Korea, in contrast to China’s decision to employ economic measures against the ROK in retaliation for THAAD.
The perceptible shifts in Russia’s attitude toward South Korea, whether simply temporary pangs or indicative or a longer-term hardening of Moscow-Seoul ties, are not necessarily inconsistent with Russia’s “equidistance” policy toward the two Korea’s.
China has also maintained something of a balance between the DPRK and ROK, while making no bones about its frustration at Seoul’s decision to host THAAD. Yet the timing of Russia’s aggravating behavior does not seem to fit with the attitude of a country that is confident in its position and truly wishes to play a constructive role in inter-Korean dynamics.
Additionally, it is difficult to discern to what extent other countries view Russia’s role in the Korea crisis as being inherently useful versus a means to achieving other political goals.
Ahead of this year’s “2+2” dialogue between Japan and Russia’s defense and foreign ministries, respectively, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono said that Moscow has an important role to play in the Korean security crisis.
The reality of Russia’s underwhelming presence in Korean security, as well as the forum’s focus on economics, will temper expectations
Given the generally minor roles that both Japan and Russia have each played in the multilateral dynamics of the Korea crisis, Tokyo’s charitable assessment of the Kremlin’s role may be little more than diplomatic massaging in an attempt to smooth the jagged edges of Japan and Russia’s own bilateral relations.
The Kremlin will no doubt consider it a diplomatic victory if Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in both attend the Eastern Economic Forum next month. Not only will it open Russia up to opportunities to push for three-way economic cooperation with Pyongyang and Seoul, but Moscow will also likely consider it to be a boost for Russia’s prestige in the Korea crisis.
The reality of Russia’s underwhelming presence in Korean security, as well as the forum’s focus on economics, will temper expectations of Russian efficacy in helping to mitigate an already highly complex situation. Should Kim decide to visit Russia, it may provoke some fanfare, and Moscow will be pleased to have scored a diplomatic coup.
As far as Kim’s presence at the Eastern Economic Forum is concerned, however, that is about all one can reasonably expect.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: President of Russia
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