On June 17, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha met with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for talks on ROK-Russia bilateral relations. The two sides discussed economic issues, with a particular emphasis on establishing a free trade zone between Russia and South Korea.
However, Lavrov and Kang also touched upon cooperation over North Korean denuclearization. Moscow has reportedly invited South Korea to participate in a developing Sino-Russian initiative aimed at achieving peace on the Korean peninsula in accordance with Beijing and Moscow’s interests.
The joint Sino-Russian proposal calls for a reduced U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for halting the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program.
Beijing and Moscow’s collaborative plan has been reported to be distinct from the “Sino-Russian roadmap” proposed in 2017, yet at the same time constitutes a development of the Sino-Russian initiative laid out two years ago.
Lavrov emphasized Moscow and Seoul’s common vision that a diplomatic solution was the only appropriate method of resolving the Korean security crisis. Russia’s top diplomat also iterated hopes for trilateral economic cooperation between North Korea, the ROK and the Russian Federation.
The pursuit of security through trade poses a catch-22 for both Moscow and Seoul
The Russian and South Korean topmost diplomats’ discussion of both expanded trade relations and security cooperation in the same meeting is hardly a matter of covering as much ground as possible in a single sitting for practical reasons. For both the ROK and Russia, mutual economic collaboration is inseparable from peace and security affairs in Northeast Asia.
Under ROK president Moon Jae-in, the basis of ROK-Russia economic relations is the New Northern Policy, which aims not only to increase economic prosperity for participating countries but also seeks to reduce military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Empirical evidence suggests that an increase in economic interconnectivity between states reduces the likelihood of armed conflict. In terms of a potential peace dividend achievable through expanded commercial interconnectivity, although economic and security integration remains largely compartmentalized in East Asia, the pursuit of free trade agreements (FTAs) in Asia has a security as well as an economic angle to it.
However, prospects for Moscow and Seoul to advance security through the power of the purse face significant hurdles that go far beyond the extant stumbling blocks to ROK-Russia bilateral economic ties.
One major barrier to achieving peace through trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul is the lopsided nature of the Russian Federation’s trade relations with the two Koreas.
Coinciding with the onset of an increasingly strict sanctions regime against North Korea, the volume of DPRK-Russia economic exchanges declined by more than half from 2017 to 2018. Commercial exchange between Russia and South Korea, meanwhile, experienced a nearly 30% increase over the same period.
Furthermore, the very security tensions on the Korean peninsula that the ROK and Russia hope to mitigate through trade stand in the way of expanded economic ties. Thus, the pursuit of security through trade poses a catch-22 for both Moscow and Seoul: peace can result from trade, but expanded commercial exchange cannot be realized without significant reductions in tensions within the Northeast Asia sub-region.
The question for the ROK is not whether or not it wants peace. The issue at hand is peace on whose terms
Beyond the confines of ROK-Russia ties, differences between Moscow, Seoul, and Washington also come into play in terms of Monday’s meeting between the Russian and South Korean foreign ministers.
Unlike Beijing, the Kremlin hardly enjoys significant leverage over South Korea to the point that it can bend Seoul’s policies toward its will. Nevertheless, Moscow’s extension of an invitation to South Korea to participate in the currently-developing Sino-Russian vision for Korean peace could cause complications for Washington.
Indeed, in this particular instance, Russia’s lack of leverage over the ROK may have worked in the Kremlin’s favor.
The reason for Moscow to extend an open hand to South Korean participation in China and Russia’s latest vision for Korean security may have been a matter of practicality, as Sergei Lavrov and Kang Kyung-hwa met shortly before this year’s G20 summit in Japan.
Nevertheless, given that the Russian Federation poses a significantly smaller threat to South Korean sovereignty than China does, Russia’s invitation could have come across as less intervening that had Beijing extended the offer itself.
The PRC and Russia have often presented their visions for Korean security as a softer, more diplomatically-oriented path toward peace in contrast to the U.S.’s staggering military presence on the Korean Peninsula and the American ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.
Yet while Russia’s offer for ROK collaboration may appear benign, Washington could perceive it as a move by the Kremlin to drive a wedge between the ROK and the U.S.
Ultimately all sides wish to see peace on the Korean Peninsula. The implicit message to Seoul coming from Russia, however, may be one that following Washington’s lead is not necessarily in the ROK’s best interests.
As mentioned earlier, the proposed action plan for Korean peace to which the Kremlin invited South Korean participation on Monday includes provisions for a diminished U.S. military presence. Yet considering factors such as the growth of Camp Humphreys – now the headquarters of United States Forces Korea – to the point that it is the U.S.’s largest overseas military base, betrays a sense that Washington has little interest in drawing down from the Korean Peninsula any time soon.
The strong interconnection between the U.S.’s deployment of military assets in South Korea and the U.S. presence in Japan enforces the notion that the U.S. military plans to stay in Northeast Asia for the long haul.
The combined prospects of increased ROK-Russia economic relations and the potential for the ROK to favor Sino-Russian visions for peace on the Korean Peninsula could nevertheless place South Korea in a difficult position, potentially tipping Seoul toward being forced to choose between the American track of sanctions and military pressure and the contrary Chinese and Russian path.
Ultimately the question for the ROK is not whether or not it wants peace. The issue at hand is peace on whose terms. Beijing and Moscow’s stance is that the U.S. must be evicted from Korea, assurances from Seoul about the enduring nature of the ROK-U.S. alliance notwithstanding.
If Beijing and Moscow can make a compelling case to the ROK that following the Sino-Russian track toward stability on the Korean Peninsula is in Seoul’s best interests, it could very well be difficult for South Korea to resist.
A simple Russian invitation to the ROK to participate in a joint Chinese and Russian policy proposal hardly signals a significant shift in Seoul’s own relations with the U.S. Nevertheless, Lavrov’s recent offer to the Blue House could be a step in bringing the ROK on board with a track that differs from that of South Korea’s American ally.
It is a development, however small at present, that Washington will likely be monitoring closely.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Kremlin
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