Russia on Seoul's East Asia Initiative

Despite maintaining strong relations with the West, President Park´s South Korea is quickly developing ties with Moscow and Beijing. Her “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” is aimed at fostering regional cooperation and garnering regional support for the Korean unification.  The warming relations between Moscow and Seoul are intended to change Russia’s view on the Korean unification.

 

Background

Recent developments over the last several years have revealed the complex security situation in East Asia, the “Asian paradox.” Although the four Pacific countries consisting of Korea, China, Japan and Russia are economically interconnected, the extent of political cooperation and institutional integration is astonishingly low. In fact, the situation in the Far East is strained due to conflicts in the East China Sea, the North Korea’s nuclear buildup, and the growing mistrust between Japan and South Korea. Lying in the middle of Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea remains interested in regional integration. Moreover, a peaceful Northeast Asia and good relations to neighboring countries are crucial preconditions for a unified Korea. Fostering ties to its neighbors, Seoul seeks regional support and approval for a Korean unification.

The Northeast Asia Peace Initiative introduced by President Park Geun-hye seeks to strengthen ties with neighboring countries, to forge an alliance against a nuclear-equipped North Korea, and to garner regional support for Korean unification. The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative includes Japan, Korea and China but also Russia and the United States. The inclusion of Russia is important because of its special relationship with Pyongyang and its growing influence on the Korean peninsula. The South Korean government endorses efforts to enhance the trade between Korean and Russia such as in the Greater Tumen Initiative.

 

Defining Russia’s Role in Korea

Due to its geographical proximity, military capacities and close ties to the DPRK Russia plays a major role on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is one of Russia’s leading trade partners in Asia. Developing relations with Seoul and rapprochement with Pyongyang define Russia’s role.

In South Korea: The Russia-South Korean relations improved recently and are anchored by a rise in trade, investment and resource projects. In order to foster its partnership with Moscow, South Korea refrained from sanctions against Russia in wake of the Crimea occupation and the standoff in Donbas.

In North Korea: Recently Russia ramped up its engagement in North Korea. Moscow and Pyongyang signed trade deals and a visa regime may be in the works. Russian companies are also interested in exploiting North Korean resources.

 

Russia’s Strategic Interests

North Korea: Russia is interested in maintaining the balance of power in Asia and keeping some leverage over the situation on the Korean peninsula. To this end, Russia has started to invest in North Korea and to foster its ties with Pyongyang. A special point of interest is the Special Economic Zone in Rason, sometimes regarded as the Hong Kong of North Korea due to less strict regulations of foreign direct investment and its special administrative status. However, the DRPK-Russia relations are strained by Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

South Korea: Due to the sanctions imposed by the West, Russia is interested in developing closer trade relations to South Korea. Russia’s main goals on the Korean peninsula are expanding its influence on both countries, economic progress in the Russian Far East and maintaining a buffer zone between the US allies South Korea and Japan.  Economically, South Korea is investing in Russia’s Far East development.

Korean reunification: Russia remains tacit, since it is unclear, how and if Russia will be able to benefit economically from a Korean unification. Most scenarios point out that it is likely that Russia will not gain from a Korean reunification. A unified Korea could turn out to be a strong American partner right in front of Russia’s doorstep. However, the economic ties between Russia and the unified Korea could boost after reunification given the case of a further improvement of relations between Seoul and Moscow.

 

As a result, a Korean unification favorable to Russia might have to meet two important preconditions:

  • Tackling security concerns:  Similarly to restrictions of NATO troops in former East Germany due to the 2+4 treaty, Russia and China may insist on the creation of a buffer zone on the territory of the former DPRK. To secure Russia’s (and China’s) full approval for the Korean reunification, the deployment of foreign troops will be restricted in the north.
  • Economic interests:  As far as economy is concerned, Russia will not necessarily profit by a Korean unification. However, the outlook of South Korean investment in Russia’s Far East may facilitate Russian support to reunification. The Korean reunification would provide Russia with the possibility to diversify its energy exports and to improve its infrastructure. Should Seoul seek Russian participation in economic integration it will contribute to Russia’s turn east and Moscow is likely to approve the Korean unification.

 

Moving Forward

The Northeast Asia Strategy of President Park Geunhye has the potential to gain Russian support for the Korean reunification. Russia is interested in fostering trade relations to South Korea and Russia’s investment projects in North Korea are endorsed by Seoul. However, Russia is not only interested in dialogue, but also in hard facts. Russia as a major stakeholder in the region wants to keep the balance of power and tries to prevent spreading American influence in the region.

Therefore, Russia will not necessarily meet a Korean unification by the South with disapproval; as long as Russia’s strategic and economic concerns are secured. An analysis of Russia’s interests in the region shows, that Russian approval for the Korean unification is possible. The Northeast Asia Initiative might convince Russia economically to cooperate closer with Korea explaining South Korea’s unwillingness to implement sanctions on Russia.