Russian Commentary on South Korea in 2019
For the last three decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the perception of South Korea in Russia has been generally positive. This has been true with respect to Russia’s general public and the political-expert community as well as the mass media. Such favorable attitudes have much to do with the fact that Russia and Korea have never had serious conflicts and disputes, since the 40-year period of the Cold War when Seoul was the US ally against the Soviet Union in the Asia-Pacific, but blame centered on Washington. If there is any memory politics between Russia and the Republic of Korea (ROK), it has little negativity. Contemporary South Korea is seen by the Russians as an advanced economy with cutting-edge technological achievements. For some Russians, especially youngsters, there is the additional charm of K-Pop’s soft power. In Russia’s policy and expert circles, the ROK is also viewed as a potential contributor to the development of the Russian Far East and a player capable of facilitating Russia’s pivot to Asia.
One of Russia’s leading foreign policy analysts Andrei Sushentsov identifies ROK as one of a group of relatively small countries—along with Israel, Finland, Uzbekistan—which have a “smart comprehensive foreign policy strategy” that enhances their influence and status on the world stage.1 According to Maria Osetrova, modern South Korea excels at soft power, as evidenced in the global success of the “Korean Wave” or the promotion of Korean cuisine, and does soft power much better than Russia.2 Osetrova argues that Korea emulates the American soft power model. “It is a more beneficial strategy,” says Osetrova about South Korea, “if you develop the economy and culture rather than conducting nuclear tests.” Nevertheless, Osetrova points out, for all the importance of soft power, it is heavy and high-tech industries, rather than K-Pop or cosmetics, that provide for the bulk of Korean exports. “One should not overestimate the role of soft power in world politics and economics. It is true that it makes countries more attractive, but it does not ensure strategic stability.”3
Viktoria Britova pays attention to how South Korea uses the concept of “middle power” to position itself on the international stage. Seoul began describing the ROK as a middle power in the 1990s in order to emphasize South Korea’s increased economic capabilities, its democratic political system, and the rise in its regional and global commitments. In accordance with the middle power identity, the ROK seeks to cultivate a positive international image. It does so by expanding international development aid, participating in UN peacekeeping operations and hosting big international events, such as the G20 summit in 2010 and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. In 2013, Seoul initiated the informal MIKTA group, with itself, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Australia as its members, so that these countries that are outside the G7 and BRICS could more effectively influence global processes. According to Britova, the adoption by Seoul of the middle power discourse is also designed to demonstrate the ROK’s peace-loving and responsible nature in order “to persuade the international community that the unification of Korea under South Korean leadership will be a major contribution to prosperity and stability in Northeast Asia.”4
The factor of the United States
There is one major complicating element in Russia’s attitude toward South Korea, which is the ROK’s alliance with the United States. Russia’s current antagonism with the US inevitably colors Russian attitudes toward Seoul, among both the ordinary public and experts. As a result, the ROK is regularly portrayed as a quasi-sovereign protectorate of the US that lacks independent foreign policies. None other than President Vladimir Putin spoke of the ROK’s “shortage of sovereignty” at a press conference after holding his first summit with the DPRK’s chairman Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok in April 2019. Putin evoked this theme when he discussed the delay in the realization of longstanding trilateral projects on the Korean Peninsula, such as the trans-Korean railway that can be connected to the Trans-Siberian and a trans-Korean gas pipeline. Konstantin Asmolov interprets Putin’s words as a direct reference to the fact that South Korea is not autonomous in its foreign policy and too dependent on the US in key areas. As Asmolov stresses, even the left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in has to bow to the US on many important issues.5
Despite Seoul’s position as a junior ally vis-à-vis Washington, ROK diplomacy has been quite evasive on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept promoted by the Trump administration. As Roman Lobo observes, Seoul is reluctant to subscribe to the American version of the Indo-Pacific because this geopolitical vision is pretty much about containing China.6 The ROK is wary of provoking Beijing, but at the same time Seoul cannot outright reject this American initiative. Under such circumstances, Lobov points out, the South Korean leadership is trying to adapt the Indo-Pacific rhetoric to the ROK’s foreign policy goals. In particular, this is being done by linking the notion of the Indo-Pacific to Seoul’s “New Southern Policy,” which aims to expand South Korea’s ties with the ASEAN countries. The Indo-Pacific rhetoric also appeared in some other ROK diplomatic documents, including a joint declaration adopted during Moon Jae-in’s visit to India in 2018. Lobov predicts that Seoul’s hesitation regarding the American concept of the Indo-Pacific will hardly be to Washington’s liking and will create additional difficulties in the US-ROK dialogue.
Lobov notes that South Korean conservatives are worried about what they see as the absence of the ROK from the new security vision for the Indo-Pacific espoused by the current US administration. They view it as an alarming signal that, along with disagreements over the USFK cost sharing and the North Korea issue, indicates a low point in the traditionally complex US-South Korean relationship. The South Korean right believe the alliance with the US should be preserved at all costs. That said, Lobov does not expect any serious changes to the US-ROK strategic alliance because both sides have vital stakes in its preservation. Lobov argues that any discussions about the possibility of US troop withdrawal from the peninsula is so far “pure fantasy.” This issue is being exaggerated by the rightist-conservative camp in South Korea, who fan alarmism about a “crisis” in US-ROK relations, blaming their political opponent Moon Jae-in for allegedly wrecking the relationship with Washington. According to Lobov, such statements by the conservatives should be seen in the context of the approaching 2020 parliamentary elections, aimed at exploiting the voters’ fears of losing US protection.
Some Russian analysts believe that the uproar around GSOMIA and Trump’s demands for South Korea to dramatically increase its financial contribution to pay for the US troops on the peninsula raise serious questions about the future of the US-ROK alliance and the prospects for the trilateral US-ROK-Japan security cooperation. Even if the sides are finally able to reach some compromise deals this time, there are more fundamental trends at work that may eventually doom the alliance. I have argued that the alliance with the US, let alone participation in the political-military bloc with Washington and Tokyo, is increasingly at odds with South Korea’s national interests.7 The US-ROK alliance, established by a treaty in 1951, was aimed at countering the threat to the South from the North. However, today only people with rich imagination would predict that the DPRK might repeat the 1950 scenario by trying to invade the South. Even if the North, by some miracle, defeated the South militarily, how would it control the territory of South Korea with the population twice as large as that of the North? Also, a hypothetical annexation of the South by the North would create unpredictable effects for the stability of the North Korean political regime – and Pyongyang knows it.
Accordingly, it is an open secret that Washington and Tokyo increasingly see military cooperation with the ROK as necessary for countering China rather than North Korea. This puts Seoul in an extremely awkward position. The South Koreans do not perceive China as a major threat. Unlike a number of China’s neighbors, such as Japan, India, Vietnam, or the Philippines, South Korea does not have serious disputes or much alarm over a territorial issue with Beijing. At the same time, becoming a frontline state in the intensifying antagonism between the US and China creates a lot of risks for Seoul, especially considering South Korea’s trade dependence on its giant neighbor. South Korea already had an occasion to feel Chinese wrath after Seoul agreed to host a THAAD anti-missile system. At that time Beijing deployed only a fraction of the economic leverage it has over South Korea.
I argued that one more reason for Seoul not to anger Beijing is the recognition that, without China’s consent, Korean unification is virtually impossible. Beijing will not allow the unification if South Korea remains a US ally because Chinese are concerned that in such a case the entire peninsula would come under America’s control. Incidentally, Russia’s stance on the unification issue is similar to China’s: a unified Korea with Seoul as the capital is hardly acceptable to Moscow if the ROK remains a close ally of the US.
As Sino-US tensions rise, I pointed out, South Korea will face a choice: opting for strengthening bonds with the US-Japan coalition, becoming part of the containment of China, or gradually distancing itself from Washington and Tokyo, moving toward neutrality. The third option, theoretically, is to become Beijing’s junior ally, but such a choice is unlikely to be seriously considered by the South Koreans. I suggest that, despite the rhetoric about the “iron-clad” alliance with the US, Moon’s administration is tilting toward the option of neutrality. Many in Washington suspect Moon and his political camp of disloyalty to the US. Most likely, such suspicions are not entirely unfounded. The leftist-progressive nationalistic camp, to which Moon belongs, has a vision for Korea as a fully sovereign and independent state, not a junior and dependent ally of Washington. Among other things, this is evidenced by the accelerated pace of growth in military expenditures under Moon, being justified by the need to achieve “self-determination.”
To be sure, during the almost seventy years of alliance, powerful pro-American vested interests have formed in the ROK, especially among the military, foreign policy bureaucracy, and expert-academic community. There is also the problem of ingrained psychological dependence: several generations of South Koreans have been taught that the country’s security is impossible without American troops. This suggests that the movement toward neutrality will likely be cautious and incremental. South Korea may go the way of Thailand, retaining a formal alliance with Washington, but simultaneously maintaining close and friendly ties with Beijing. At the same time, Seoul will be bolstering its military capability to pursue more autonomy and self-sufficiency in national defense. It is also quite possible that the ROK will follow Japan’s example in adopting a “virtual” nuclear status, meaning a country that does not possess nuclear weapons but has all necessary components and technologies to quickly become a nuclear power once the political decision is made.8
Andrei Lankov has assessed the prospects of South Korea’s nuclearization,9 noting that during the past two or three years there has been a rise in pro-nuclear sentiments in the right-wing section of the South Korean political establishment, mainly driven by fears of abandonment by the US and concerns over the nuclear-missile achievements of the North. The leftist camp currently does not exhibit any nuclear ambitions, which is partly explained by their tendency to take the military threat from the North less seriously as well as their confidence that Pyongyang will not use nuclear weapons against the compatriots in the South. Lankov is skeptical that the ROK will take the path of nuclearization even if the conservatives win the next elections and move from opposition into a position of power. If Seoul starts work on nuclear weapons, it will face international sanctions that could ruin South Korea’s export-oriented economy and result in the country’s diplomatic isolation. The fiercest opposition to South Korea’s hypothetical nuclear efforts would come from China, which “would do anything” to stop them.
In Lankov’s view, the South Koreans do not sense an existential threat that would warrant the acquisition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is economic achievements and prosperity that matter most for South Korean voters. Even though a substantial percentage of the South Koreans are, according to opinion polls, flirting with the idea of getting nuclear weapons, ROK society will not sacrifice material wealth for nuclear ambitions. Lankov argues that for South Korean politicians the talk of nuclear weapons is often a way of “soft blackmail” targeting Washington, and the international community at large, in the hope of drawing more attention to the North Korean nuclear problem. Also, Seoul’s periodic discussion of South Korea’s possible nuclearization may be designed to push the US to consider strengthening strategic ties with the ROK, such as through establishing joint US-ROK control over nuclear deterrence capabilities following the NATO model.10
South – North relations
Georgy Toloraya represents the majority view of the Russian expert community when discussing the prospects for denuclearization and inter-Korean relations. He is skeptical about the possibility of a grand deal between North Korea and the US, believing that, despite Trump’s reassuring stance toward Kim Jong-un, the US will not be able to provide credible security guarantees to Pyongyang. Washington will continue to seek to unify the peninsula under South Korean aegis, meaning the end of the DPRK as a state. Even a reformed DPRK will not be acceptable to the American establishment that has demonized North Korea for decades, although there remains a slim chance that Pyongyang could convince Washington that the North could become a second Vietnam and a friend of the US on an anti-China basis. Toloraya is confident that the full denuclearization of North Korea is not achievable. The only realistic scenario is a reduction and limitation of the DPRK’s nuclear-missile capabilities, such as by closing its ICBM programs and stopping fissile material production. However, the US is unlikely to agree to partial denuclearization.
Toloraya predicts that after the thaw in 2018 the pendulum will swing back, and there may be another crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2020, perhaps triggered by domestic political developments in South Korea or the US. In one scenario, Trump may decide that he needs to flex his muscles to boost his chances for re-election. In South Korea, in 2020, Moon will become a lame duck and may not be able to resist the anti-North sentiments that remain strong in the South. South Korean society is almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents of engagement with the North. At the moment, the spirit of cooperation with the North prevails, but this can quickly change, and another South-North confrontation would ensue, argues Toloraya. Young generations in the South are less and less interested in North Korea: they do not feel like paying for their destitute relatives in the North.
If a conservative administration replaces the Moon Jae-in administration in 2022, it is likely that South-North relations will experience a decline, with a rollback of initiatives started during the Moon presidency, especially considering that his overtures to the North produced meager results due to the sanctions regime that remains in place. His role as a mediator between the North and the US can only be given full credit if a diplomatic breakthrough is achieved, but the prospects for such a breakthrough are very uncertain.
According to Toloraya, neither Seoul not Pyongyang is interested in unification at present. The elites in the North and the South do not want to see their powers diminished by transferring authority to some inter-Korean bodies. The ideal scenario for the long term would be co-existence of the two states on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and economic cooperation. In this case, the DPRK would become an economic appendage of South Korea but would keep its political independence, an arrangement that would likely suit Pyongyang.
The South Korea – Japan row
The conflict that erupted between Seoul and Tokyo in the summer of 2019 over Japan’s introduction of export limitations against South Korea and the ROK’s threat to withdraw from the military information exchange agreement with Japan, called GSOMIA, caught the attention of the media as well as the expert community in Russia. The commentary was mainly neutral, without showing any clear support for either party in the dispute. Some comments contained undertones of gloating directed at the US. A bitter quarrel of two US allies was taken by many in Russia as another sign of the weakening of the American hegemony. As one Russian columnist wrote, “as long as the American-dominated system worked, frictions between Japan and South Korea were not allowed to get out of hand. Now, judging by the toothless US response, the regional hegemon is no longer the hegemon, while the two sides are reverting to their old grudges.”11
In an essay for the Valdai Club, Andrei Lankov tends to put the blame on the Moon Jae-in administration for the current exacerbation of tensions with Tokyo. He argues that the ROK Supreme Court’s decision to freeze Japanese assets directly contradicted the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea. Also, it threatened to open a Pandora’s box for Japan because China could follow with similar claims. That this time not only symbolic but also very material interests of Japan were affected partly explains why Tokyo’s response was so harsh. Lankov notes that, in the immediate wake of the bilateral row Moon Jae-in’s popularity, which had been sliding in the previous months, began to rise again, which probably was one of the objectives in provoking the dispute with Japan in the first place.
According to Lankov, there is little surprise in what is now happening between Japan and South Korea. For decades, the two countries saw each other unfavorably, even to the point of viewing one another as potential adversaries. Korean hostility to Japan is usually explained as the aftermath of Japan’s colonial rule in 1910-1945. However, this is only partly true because Taiwan, which had also been under Japanese rule, displays a friendly attitude to Japan. Of much higher significance is the fact that Korean nationalism deliberately chose Japan as “the malicious enemy,” whose existence is needed to consolidate the Korean nation. Even though, compared to leftist nationalists, Korean right-wing and conservative forces are less hostile to Japan, a certain degree of anti-Japanese sentiments is uniformly maintained by all South Korean mass media as well as by the entire education system. The narrative of Japanese cruelty and perfidy, against the background of Korean suffering and heroic resistance, is the main content of almost all films and books which deal with the colonial era. Only black-and-white depiction of these topics is allowed, with no shades of grey and nuances. Impartial discussion of the history of the colonial period is impossible due to many taboo issues. South Korean academics or journalists put their career at risk if they dare to say that the colonial period was not only about forced assimilation and slave labor, but also brought rapid economic growth, a dramatic rise in life expectancy, and the creation of a modern education system in Korea. In the atmosphere of pervasive anti-Japanese nationalism, demonstration of willingness to oppose Japan always helps a South Korean politician to score extra electoral points is argued by Lankov.
Until recently, anti-Japanism was not costly because the Japanese, driven by a guilt-complex for their imperial-era transgressions, seldom responded to Seoul’s accusations and provocations. In this regard, they differed from the Chinese, who have a pattern of harshly retaliating against the actions of South Korean authorities if they are deemed to damage China’s interests. As Lankov puts it, “based on the experience of the past decades Seoul feared China, was somewhat afraid of the US, but considered Japan as a meek and safe target.” But this time Seoul got it wrong. Japan’s prolonged postwar and post-imperial complex of guilt seems to be fading away, especially considering that the attempts to build Tokyo’s regional diplomacy on recognition of guilt and continued repentance have brought Japan little. Tokyo’s new-found toughness toward South Korea may result in more respect for Japan. But, as Lankov points out, the opposite effect is also possible: Japan’s attempts to show teeth could only strengthen the positions of those who are constantly talking about “the danger of the revival of Japanese militarism.”
An article authored by two young international relations analysts, Gleb Toropchin and Anastasiya Tolstukhina, argues that Tokyo’s decision to introduce export restrictions against Korea might have been guided by the desire to deal a blow to a major economic competitor that has been defeating Japan in high-tech areas, including micro-electronics.12 Furthermore, the authors of the article suggest that the US may be benefiting from the Japan-South Korea conflict because its disruptive impact on the Korean semiconductor industry would, in turn, negatively affect supply chains for China’s electronics industries and, in particular, slow down the development of artificial intelligence technologies in China. This may be why, according to the article, the US was not in a hurry to interfere and mediate in the Japanese-Korean row.
There was some discussion in the Russian media and expert commentary about economic benefits Russia might gain from the Japan-ROK conflict. Some commentators expressed hopes that in the wake of its falling out with Japan, South Korea would become more interested in boosting technological cooperation with Russia.13 The Kommersant newspaper reported that South Korea is considering switching to Russia as an alternative source of advanced chemicals needed for the Korean microelectronics industries. However, Russian industrial experts were quite cautious in their assessments as to whether Russia could actually offer South Korea chemical components of necessary specifications and quality.14 Some Russian commentators suggested that South Korean references to Russia as a possible alternative supplier were just a negotiation ploy to influence Japan.15
Russia-South Korea political relations
When Moon Jae-in became South Korea’s chief executive in May 2017, Moscow met his electoral victory with some hopeful expectations. Many in Russia’s foreign policy making and expert circles believed that, after the previous conservative administration of Park Geun-hye, Moon would be a better partner for Russia. Initially, it seemed Moon lived up to those expectations, early on emphasizing Russia as one of the four most important major power partners for Seoul, along with the US, China, and Japan. One of his first foreign visits was to Russia: in September 2017 he traveled to Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum hosted by Vladimir Putin. In Vladivostok, Moon announced the Nine Bridges initiative aimed to expand South Korea’s economic links with Russia and its Far East. In June 2018, Moon went on a state visit to Russia and was granted the rare honor to address the Russian parliament, the State Duma.
However, after that high point, the Moscow-Seoul relationship has stalled and failed to make any appreciable progress. In the political realm, Moon was busy pursuing high-stakes diplomacy with Kim and Trump while apparently having little time left for Russia. On the economic front, there has not been much movement either, with South Korean investors not in a rush to come to Russia. Moscow’s disappointment may have contributed to its decision to take a tougher line with Seoul. In 2019, the most significant event in the Russia-ROK relations was a joint air operation by Russia and China that possibly involved a breach of the South Korean-controlled airspace. On July 23, Russian and Chinese warplanes, long-range, nuclear-capable bombers accompanied by fighter jets and surveillance aircraft, jointly flew over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. This marked the first ever joint air force operation by Russia and China beyond their borders. It was also remarkable that the patrol’s route ran over one of the most politically sensitive areas in East Asia, the Dokdo (Takeshima) islands disputed between Korea and Japan. The Russo-Chinese operation caused a commotion. Seoul and Tokyo both claimed that a Russian military plane from the joint patrol group twice violated their airspace, prompting South Korean fighter jets to fire hundreds of warning shots at a Russian warplane. For its part, Moscow categorically stated that the mission took place over international waters and did not breach any sovereign airspace.
Whether or not an actual violation of the airspace over Dokdo (Takeshima) took place, the very fact of the first joint mission by Russian and Chinese air forces carried major diplomatic and strategic significance. China and Russia apparently sought a maximum demonstration effect. By executing an operation in the Northeast Asian skies, Moscow and Beijing were sending the message that their “strategic partnership” is not a paper tiger. Apart from displaying the strengthening political-military ties between Moscow and Beijing, the joint flights in the Pacific had the practical purpose of enhancing the interoperability of Russian and Chinese air forces. One more objective was, according to Russian sources cited in the Kommersant newspaper, to collect valuable military data about the South Korean air defense system by deliberately provoking its response, something called “cracking the hedgehog” in Russian military jargon.16
According to prominent Russian experts, such as Vasily Kashin, there is little doubt that the joint patrol on July 23 is just a harbinger of what may come next.17 The Russo-Chinese military missions outside their borders are bound to continue, while their scale and sophistication will be increasing. Some Russian analysts believe one of the next steps in the Sino-Russian military collaboration could be forming a shared pool of support assets, such as AWACS aircraft and tanker aircraft, to assist Russian and Chinese forces operating in the Pacific.18 According to my commentary in the Valdai Club, if the Russo-Chinese military partnership continues its upward trend, it will inevitably affect the security order in the Western Pacific that has for decades been characterized by the political-military dominance of the United States.19 The joint actions by Russia and China are most likely seeking to challenge the system of US-centered alliances in the Asia-Pacific and change the strategic balance. By acting individually, neither China nor Russia could hope to undercut the US hegemony there. That could occur only if they combine forces. Northeast Asia and the North Pacific are currently the most suitable theater to operationalize a Sino-Russian military alliance. Russia and China have a direct presence in this region and maintain substantial military potential there that, if combined, can complement each other. It the Sino-Russian military alliance is to materialize, it will most likely start from Northeast Asia.
The joint patrol of the Russian and Chinese warplanes was a message to Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. But it was Seoul that appeared to be the main target. The Russian and Chinese bombers could have flown by the Senkakus or Okinawa, but they chose the Korean-controlled Dokdo. It was the first violation of South Korean airspace by a foreign military plane since the end of the Korean War.20 Beijing and Moscow are well aware that South Korea is the weak link in the US alliance network in Asia. It is an open secret that Seoul is less loyal to Washington than Japan and Australia, the two other America’s main allies in the Asia-Pacific. And, compared to Japan, South Korea is far more vulnerable to pressure from the Sino-Russian coalition. If Beijing and Moscow adroitly use the carrot and stick approach toward Seoul, it could weaken the US-ROK alliance, or even end it altogether. Through military demonstrations, like the one conducted in July 2019, Beijing and Moscow will keep offering reminders that they are capable of making life difficult for South Korea, if, for example, Seoul takes decisions that affect Russia and China’s security interests, such as allowing the Americans to expand missile defense systems in Korea or approving deployment of US intermediate-range missiles on the Korean soil. The likely objective for Beijing and Moscow is finlandization of South Korea, which means turning it into a neutral state that would refrain from policies that China and Russia deem compromising their security. Finlandization of South Korea, if achieved, would be a major blow to the US positions, both in Northeast Asia and globally.21
Even though Moscow somewhat cooled on Moon in 2019, most Russian experts agree that his administration is still preferable to Russia than the South Korean conservatives, who are more pro-US and less inclined to engage with Pyongyang. It was, to a significant extent, thanks to Moon’s efforts that 2018 saw a major détente on the Korean Peninsula. For the sake of maintaining stability in the region, it is in Russia’s interest that Moon’s camp remains in power.22 Roman Lobov observes that Seoul chose to downplay the Russian-Chinese air patrol incident. In particular, Moon Jae-in refrained from making any public statements. Lobov argues that the dispute with Japan and concerns over North Korea overshadow any worries the South Koreans might have about the Sino-Russian military maneuvers close to South Korean borders. Such incidents, he writes, “must not negatively affect Russian, Chinese and South Korean efforts to coordinate joint actions to ensure security in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula.” He believes that “the current regional situation in Northeast Asia is such that Moscow and Seoul would be better off if they keep dialogue rather than burning bridges.”23
Russia-South Korea economic relations
Russia’s main interest in maintaining good relations with South Korea has always been economic. The ROK has been seen as one of Russia’s major economic partners in Asia and a country that can contribute to the development of the Russian Far East. Such expectations toward South Korea became even more pronounced after Russia fell out with the West in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and began to court Asian markets. There were hopes that the arrival of Moon Jae-in, who is seen as relatively more pro-Russian and less pro-US than the previous administration of Park Geun-hye, would give a boost to Russian-Korean economic links. However, that did not happen. Moon’s widely advertised Nine Bridges Initiative, which aims to expand economic relations with Russia, has so far failed to deliver any major successes.
Irina Korgun points out that South Korea remains interested in the Russian Far East for long-term geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. It is seen as the northern gateway to North Korea. Also, the Russia Far East is rich in natural resources, while it is strategically located to run important logistical routes through its territory. However, she observes, “South Korean business is so far not ready to actively invest in Russian projects.”24 Korean companies see the risks of doing business in Russia, including US sanctions risks, as relatively high. The Russian Far East’s attractiveness is limited by its lack of infrastructure and the low population density. Even the ROK government’s appeals to South Korean businesses to invest in Russia do not have much effect. During the last two decades, the relationship between government and business has changed in Korea: government and business used to act in close tandem, but now South Korean companies are more independent in making investment decisions. Korean entrepreneurs are not willing to spend money on a project, be it in Russia or elsewhere, unless it is clearly profitable. Companies could be induced by the ROK government’s financial guarantees or material benefits that offset the risks of investing in Russia, but providing such official guarantees or benefits in exchange for geopolitically-motivated foreign investments has become increasingly difficult in contemporary Korea, where society is opposed to the state’s special treatment of large corporations. Furthermore, all the major Korean conglomerates are already present in Russia, making it more difficult to expand Russia-ROK economic cooperation through big business ventures. That means more attention should be given to attracting South Korean small and medium-sized enterprises to Russia.25
The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), the fifth of which was held in Vladivostok in September 2019 with Seoul represented by finance and economic minister Hong Nam-ki, traditionally featured discussions about the current state and prospects for Russia-Korea economic cooperation. It was acknowledged that while the number of South Korean-funded projects in the Russian Far East is still low (just nine of them),26 there are some niches that display growth, such as tourism, but they are not enough to transform the Russia-ROK economic relationship to a new level. Trilateral (Russia-ROK-DPRK) projects were also discussed at the forum but, in contrast to the previous EEF in 2018, this time North Koreans refused to sit down with South Koreans, reflecting the general deterioration of the situation on the peninsula in 2019. This once again showed that inter-Korean and trilateral economic projects remain hostage to the strategic volatility on and around the Korean Peninsula. One example is South Korea’s cautious attitude toward the Khasan-Rajin rail-and-port logistics venture. Russia has long sought to attract South Korean companies into the project, but without much success since South Koreans are deterred by sanctions and political risks. Marina Kukla, who attended the forum’s sessions, notes that “on the whole, the South Korean side is passive” on the Khasan-Rajin project.27 This is yet another indication that Seoul, albeit interested in inter-Korean and trilateral (Russia-North-South) projects, still has to tread carefully so as not to provoke US anger.
Russian commentaries in 2019 have taken a decidedly harsher tone toward South Korea. Many causes may be suggested. First, it may be less about South Korea than a reflection of a tilt toward a tougher line toward the US and its allies, as seen in more negative coverage of Japan. Second, it may signal a reassessment of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, siding more with North Korea on the course of diplomacy and the reasons for the impasse. Third, it may show that blame is being placed on Moon Jae-in for raising hopes for bilateral relations and then dashing them. Fourth, a more critical outlook in publications is also a function of more assertive policies, notably the July joint Russia-China flights over Dokdo, about which Seoul protested. Finally, a strategic decision may have been made to single out South Korea as the most vulnerable point in what is perceived as the US hegemonic order in the Asia-Pacific, joining with China in this view.
The coverage above makes clear that 2019 is a sign of what is to come. Pressure on Seoul is not due to factors likely to disappear in the 2020s. Indeed, there is every reason to expect them to be even more in evidence. A cold war atmosphere is deepening, the tensions over North Korea are in danger of ratcheting up, a conservative may replace Moon to Russia’s dissatisfaction, and the realization that South Korea is at the crossroads of intensifying struggle is likely to grow. During the 2010s ROK leaders kept tantalizing Russia with initiatives as if they could stabilize relations. Such rhetoric no longer is likely to work. A time of reckoning seems to be foretold in writings of late. Further close attention to Russian publications is advisable in this fast-evolving atmosphere.