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[Herald Interview] ‘Russia-N. Korea cooperation will clear way for Eurasia Initiative’

South Korea should take advantage of cooperation between Russia and North Korea to smooth the way for regional economic integration and improve inter-Korean relations, an expert said in an interview with The Korea Herald last week.

According to Park Byung-in, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and at Kyungnam University’s Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, the recent harmonization between Moscow and Pyongyang is the result of both countries’ desire to wriggle out of Western-led sanctions and secure a foothold in East Asia’s integrated economy.

“Knowing full well North Korea’s strategic utility, the Kremlin has used the Pyongyang card to engage Seoul and garner its support for its continental project,” Park said. “Moscow’s ulterior motive may be to elicit Seoul’s participation in constructing natural gas pipelines from Russia to South Korea, and a trans-Korean railway linked with Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.”

He stressed that if President Park Geun-hye does not participate in Russia’s event this May to mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in Moscow, the Korean government’s regional foreign policy and inter-Korean policy will be significantly compromised.

To realize the Park administration’s Northeast Asia Peace Initiative, Eurasia Initiative and Korean Peninsula Trust Process, Seoul should capitalize on the opportunity and work to resolve issues surrounding the May 24 Measures, Park advised.

 
Professor Park Byung-in. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
Professor Park Byung-in. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

The Korea Herald: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will attend Russia’s 70th anniversary event to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany in Moscow this May according to the Kremlin. If President Park does not participate, how would this affect Cheong Wa Dae’s regional diplomacy?

Park Byung-in: We have to remember that, back in 2005 for the 60th anniversary of the event, all five leaders of the six-party-talks nations, except North Korea, participated: Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, U.S. President George W. Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. For Kim Jong-un, the event will be a platform to flaunt his foreign policy achievements to his people ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party in October.

This will undoubtedly put President Park in a tough spot, as she will have to choose between Moscow and Washington. If she does not participate, her centerpiece foreign policy proposal, the Eurasian Initiative, will likely be scrapped by the withdrawal of Russian support. Garnering Russian support for future inter-Korean and unification policies will be out of the question. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will be absent, but toeing Washington’s line would downgrade Korea’s sovereignty. It is important to recognize that international sanctions are secondary to our own national interests.

KH: How have Russia-North Korea relations evolved from the Soviet era to the Putin era?

Park: Pyongyang played a hedging strategy between Moscow and Beijing during the communist era, as national leader Kim Il-sung consolidated his power with Soviet backing and China fought alongside the North during the Korean War (1950-53). But as tensions between Russia and China intensified over the years, Pyongyang started to tread an independent path using the “juche” ideology of self-reliance. Meanwhile, Kim Il-sung used Russia as leverage against China, and his son Kim Jong-il worked hard to enhance ties with Moscow by holding four summits.

The Kremlin’s recent cordial approach is not only a response to Western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, but also a product of a long-held regional aspiration. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia stepped up diplomacy with the West and South Korea, deserting North Korea. This caused a rift between Moscow and Pyongyang.

The second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2002 was dealt with by China, the U.S., North Korea and South Korea. Russian officials, fearing being shunted aside in regional politics, strove to keep a high-profile and got onboard the six-party talks in 2003. They realized North Korea’s strategic role in advancing Russian ambitions to control Northeast Asia and develop its Far East. Putin has pushed a rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific to clinch Russia’s stake in the regional order dominated by the U.S. and China. Pyongyang, in an effort to level-off dependence on China, embraced Moscow’s advances.

KH: From Beijing’s perspective, how will improved Pyongyang-Moscow ties affect China’s interests?

Park: The top foreign policy priority of both Russia and China is maintaining peace and stability in East Asia. To offset American influence in the region, the Kremlin and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) have elevated their partnership to a historic high. China has faced growing pressure from the international community to play a leadership role in disciplining Pyongyang. In this light, China sees improved Russia-North Korea relations as beneficial to its own national interests, as Russia will help relieve some of its burden regarding the belligerent ally.

However, this does not mean that Russia-North Korea relations will replace China-North Korea relations in any significant degree. Moscow is oriented geopolitically closer to Europe than Asia. The level of trade between China and North Korea in 2013 was 58 times that of Russia and North Korea. North Korea exported $9 million worth of textiles, musical instruments and rare-earth resources to Russia and imported $103 million worth of oil, railway vehicles, machinery and wood materials.

Both Russia and China seem to believe that enhanced inter-Korean relations can give it leverage against America’s clout in the region. A Russia-North Korea partnership will prompt competition over the strategic nation between Russia and China, which will activate renewed cooperation between the three Cold War allies. In the same vein, Seoul should not be overly concerned about the current cooperation. It will kick-start a new growth engine for our economy and expand our commercial horizons. We need a forward-looking vision to capitalize on this opportunity.

KH: Will Moscow-Pyongyang harmonization help or get in the way of multilateral denuclearization efforts?

Park: Once Pyongyang believes it has no ally to trust and count on, it will further isolate itself from the world and press on with its nuclear development. As Moscow signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a nuclear-armed North Korea would not serve Russia’s interests. But Moscow has perceived Pyongyang’s nuclear capability as an indirect threat and sought to change its behavior rather than its leadership. The improved relations between Moscow and Pyongyang have the potential to empower Kim’s regime and deflect international sanctions. But at the same time, Russia can play the role of an honest broker and trustworthy ally to dissuade Pyongyang from its brinksmanship.

KH: How will enhanced ties between Russia and North Korea help bring about President Park’s Northeast Asia Peace Initiative, Eurasia Initiative and Korean Peninsula Trust Process?

Park: The Northeast Asia Peace Initiative is an envisioned supranational schema comparable to the European Union. It traces its roots to former President Roh Moo-hyun, whose own vision descended from former President Roh Tae-woo’s Nordpolitik policies, which helped normalize relations with communist nations. The Eurasia Initiative falls under the umbrella of the NAPI.

Under the slogan, “one continent, creative continent and peaceful continent,” the Eurasia Initiative aspires to recover Korea’s continental connection, which was severed by the division of the peninsula. After the Korean War, South Korea effectively became an island and lost its continental identity. This initiative cannot be accomplished without the support of Russia and North Korea.

Whereas the NAPI may be somewhat idealistic and far-fetched, the Eurasia initiative is more implementable and concrete. When Dmitry Medvedev, Kim Jong-il and Lee Myung-bak were national leaders (of Russia, North Korea and South Korea, respectively) in 2011, they were all open to the idea of developing a natural gas pipeline from Sakhalin Island to South Korea. This joint project, currently stymied by the May 24 Measures, is one of the blueprints outlined in these initiatives. Seoul must take a front seat in this project without looking for Washington’s approval. The positive developments between Moscow and Pyongyang must be acted upon.

KH: What are the deeper intentions behind Moscow’s overtures to Pyongyang? What is the significance of border area enterprises such as the Rajin-Khasan project?

Park: Moscow agreed to fund a $25 billion project last year that would modernize 3,500 kilometers of North Korea’s railways and mining, transportation, hydro and electrical infrastructure. In return, Russia would gain privileged access to the North’s rich reserve of minerals.

Given Russia’s economic difficulties following the ruble’s collapse, this project seems unlikely to be realized as planned. Moscow’s ulterior motive may be to elicit Seoul’s participation in constructing natural gas pipelines from Russia to South Korea, and a trans-Korean railway linked with Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. Knowing full well North Korea’s strategic utility, the Kremlin has used the Pyongyang card to engage Seoul and garner its support for its continental project.

To jump-start these schemes, Russia waived $10 billion of Pyongyang’s $11 billion debt from the Soviet era, announced that it would expand bilateral trade 10-fold to $1 billion a year by 2020 and use the ruble as currency. Russia also invested $250 million to develop North Korea’s northeastern city of Rajin into a logistics hub and link it with Russia’s Khasan through the Trans-Siberian Railway. In November 2013, the first batch of 40,000 tons of Siberian coal was shipped to the port city of Pohang in the southeastern part of (South) Korea.

South Korea needs to realize that, whereas sanctions against Pyongyang are short-term and subject to volatile international politics, these economic projects last for decades. More practically, they can help make our NAPI, Eurasia Initiative and Korean Peninsula Trust Process into reality. Korea’s alliance with the U.S. considered, I do not think it is an issue that will damage our relations.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)

Park Byung-in graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 1990 with a degree in Chinese language. He obtained his master’s and Ph.D. at Moscow State University from 1993-97 in Russian and Northeast Asian economics. His research focuses on Russia-China-North Korea relations and Eurasian political economy. ― Ed.
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