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South Korea greets Russia as the bear turns east

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Song Young-gil, the special envoy of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 24 May 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov).

In Brief

In less than thirty years, previously non-existent diplomatic relations between Russia and South Korea have transformed into a formidable economic partnership. As of 2015, South Korea ranked as Russia's seventh-largest trading partner for exports and imports.


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Prior to the election of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Russia–South Korea commodity turnover was US$15 billion. Moon’s administration wants to double that by 2020. He is not alone in that goal — after the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum (an event that Russia holds to encourage investment in the Russian Far East), the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Corporation vowed to help South Korean firms planning to operate in Russia. As its broader plan, Seoul hopes to establish a major free trade agreement with Russia and members of the Eurasian Economic Union after the Trump administration created uncertainty over the future of the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement

Russia’s domestic interests in developing the Far East are driving the uptick in trade ties. As far back as the days of the Russian Empire, the Far East has been one of the most underdeveloped regions of Russia. Both Moscow and Seoul recognise the opportunities that the Far East provides for closer cooperation, and the presidents of both countries have vowed to foster development in the region.

Moscow’s pursuit of closer economic ties with South Korea also constitutes part of Russia’s ‘turn to the east’ and specifically features in Russia’s most recent foreign policy concept. Galina Karelova, Deputy Chairperson of the Federation Council (the Russian parliament’s upper house), praised South Korea as an important partner in the Asia Pacific. But the development is not purely bilateral; the current agenda for Russia–South Korea trade collaboration includes potential economic developments in a broader Northeast Asian regional context.

Following a visit to Seoul in November 2017, Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East Alexander Galushka asserted that South Korea was interested in participating in the Rason–Khasan railway link project once again. The following month, Song Young-gil, whom Moon appointed to serve as a special presidential envoy to Russia, began pushing for legislative changes that would allow for North Korea–South Korea economic cooperation to include third-party countries like the Russian Federation.

Speaking at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum, Moon noted the compatibility of Russia’s new East Asia policy and South Korea’s new northern policy. Moon described the potential areas of Russia–South Korea economic cooperation as constituting ‘nine bridges’, which range from gas infrastructure to seaports to Arctic shipping routes.

Even prior to the 2017 Forum, the Russian Far East was the epicentre of economic relations with South Korea. According to Yury Trutnev, Russian Presidential Envoy for the Far Eastern Federal District, commodity turnover between the two countries grew 50 per cent during the first half of 2017, and Russian exports to South Korea were up by 40 per cent.

Recent examples of Russian–South Korean economic cooperation at the provincial level include an October 2017 meeting in Seoul between the South Korean government and business representatives as well as senior figures from eight regions in the Russian Far East. At another meeting in January 2018, Song Young-gil and Alexander Galushka discussed the ‘nine bridges’ plan in the context of increasing ties between South Korea and the Russian Far East.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, it is in Russia’s national interest to raise its profile in the Asia Pacific while simultaneously driving economic development — particularly in those regions most geographically distant from Moscow. South Korean investment in Russia’s eastern regions helps to mitigate the possibility of overt economic dependence on a single foreign partner like China. Given the Korean Peninsula’s geographic proximity to the Russian Far East, Seoul perhaps finds it more expedient to focus on developing its presence through projects and partnerships in Russia’s Asia Pacific regions.

Anthony V Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.

One response to “South Korea greets Russia as the bear turns east”

  1. I seriously fear that the Olympics in Pyeongchang will end right after her grand opening ceremony. And it will end with a nuclear strike right across the Olympic village. Either the blow will be inflicted during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.
    What a wonderful way for America to solve the problem of world domination once and for all. Literally one nuclear missile launched from an American submarine from the shores of North Korea. They can immediately declare North Korea a treacherous aggressor, present countless fake evidence, satellite imagery; to incite the whole world press and, as a result, force all its allies, who lost their Olympic teams in the hellish flame of a thermonuclear outbreak, to declare war on the aggressor. China in any case will play on the side of North Korea. It will then become the main goal of the Allies. For America it is not enough to equalize the entire Korean peninsula with the earth. It is much more important to forever deprive China of the opportunity to ever challenge America’s world domination. And if not to do so right now, then literally in a decade and a half this world will be ruled by the Chinese Empire, led by the Communist Party and in close alliance with Russia. You think, the world financial elite is ready to take such risks. Yes, they better burn several million people in a local nuclear conflict than will allow such a thing to happen. And, do not even need to crush China to the ground. It is enough to destroy his navy, the infrastructure of several large seaports and shipyards. Having lost both the fleet and the opportunity to restore it, China will lose control over the sea routes, and then the economy will collapse, as no country in the world will want to buy goods shipped via radioactive ports.
    I think that in this war Russia will observe armed neutrality. We do not have a reason to join the war on the side of the Allies, because in Pyeongchang we have no National team. There are several athletes, but all of them are volunteers and “a trip to the Olympics is their own choice.” Accordingly, there is no reason to question the American version of the North Korean aggression. And this is exactly what is needed from us to the west.
    I recommend all tourists to leave South Korea immediately.

    Valery Telebin,
    Russian naval officer

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