Many Korean rulers, both from the North and the South, have been called ‘puppet’. But this propagandistic term can be applied neither to Kim Ir-sen, who had always been a very tough partner for Moscow and whom one had wanted to dethrone since 1956; nor to Li Syn Man, against whom the Americans had five times envisioned a military coup d’etat (so called ‘Plan Everready’) and who was at times openly called ‘an old moron’; nor to Park Chung-hee whose conversations were tapped by the American intelligence service, and in accordance with one of the versions – there is an American link in his assassination. Squeezed among hyper powers due to its geopolitical position, Korea has almost always been forced, on the one hand, to look up to this or that ‘overlord’, and on the other – to try to preserve its independence and to a maximum extent stretch the lead by maneuvering among Great Powers where it is possible.
And the incumbent President of the Republic of Korea (RK) clings to the similar policy. Verbally, Park Geun-hye keeps affirming the sanctity of the South Korean – American alliance, but practically, if Lee Myung-bak acted in external policy as a bluntly pro-American conservative, Park Geun-hye is also a conservative, but a way over neoconservative. A set of her projects, including the notorious ‘Eurasian initiative’ can be viewed as an attempt to establish relations not only with America, but with continental powers as well. But the dependence from the external forces remains in place and is aggravated by certain weakness of domestic political positions. On the one hand, Park Geun-hye has enough enemies in the Right camp and on the other hand – the Left inherently do not accept her, for whom she is a daughter of Dictator Park Chung-hee. It is in this context that one should consider the whole range of problems which face Seoul in its foreign policy. It is necessary to take important decisions, but at the same time one should not hurt either one or another: on the one hand, the principal military and political ally represented by the USA, on the other – the principal business partner represented by China, and on the third – the RF as a potential strategic partner.
The first such decision relates to the possibility of Park Geun-hye’s visit to Moscow to attend festivities dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War (Second WW). This could help in strengthening the ties between the two countries, to say nothing about the definite opportunity to meet on a neutral territory with the DPRK leader who will most probably be there. But in the face of the Ukrainian crisis, the USA and their allies have ignored the invitation from Moscow and actively demand from their ‘vassals’ to do the same – at the level of avowals from the White House representatives on the inadvisability of such visit.
As a result, the South Korean leadership has not yet taken the official decision. It is expected to be made in mid-April, but a source close to political and governmental authorities, on an anonymous basis, informed the ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ that the predominant opinion of both the Presidential Executive Office and of many governmental agencies, and in particular – of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, is that on the inadvisability of the President’s visit to Russia.
On the other hand, Moon Jae-in, leader of the opposition Democratic Coalition for New Policy, assumes that Park Geun-hye should accept participation in the festivities. Specialists in Russian Studies from the Hanyang University where the brain trust for studying Russia and the CIS is located, stand for the visit to Moscow. Professor Kennam Pak Pyong In from the Faculty of Political Sciences of the Institute of Far-Eastern Studies also assumes that the visit to Moscow can turn out to be a key event for the success of the ‘Eurasian Initiative’ project.
Should Park Geun-hye had a greater internal support, probably, she could act more independently, but so far she has to do things by halves. For example, formally, South Korea has not joined in the sanctions against Russia, but practically some Korean businessmen have received an unofficial instruction to ease up and withhold from new projects with Russia.
Another problem is the deployment on the Korean territory of the THAAD (Theater High Altitude Area Defense) system – a mobile land-based anti-missile system for high altitude exoatmospheric intercept of medium-range missiles. Moscow, and Beijing in the first place, clearly understand that this system is aimed not so much at counting the hypothetical ‘North Korean threat’, as against Russia and China, and actively ‘advise’ Seoul ‘to take into account the China’s concern’ and refrain from this decision.
The RK Government and the ruling party hold to the opinion on the necessity to cooperate, the Opposition advocates a low-key approach, referring to the negative attitude of the neighbors, China and Russia in the first place, as well as to the questionable efficiency of these systems.
As experts note, this issue can trigger the aggravation of the Chinese-South Korean relations, but representatives of the RK Ministry of Defense have already declared that Seoul will take the decision on this issue ‘independently and on the basis of its national interests’.
Competition also exists in the issue of regional investment projects, which the USA and PRC try to force Seoul into. For example, China seeks to make Seoul join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Beijing creates this financial structure in opposition to international and regional financial institutes, dominated by the USA and Japan; and RF considers the issue of joining it. Now it is already Washington who throws sand in the wheels, pointing at the ‘lack of transparency in decision-making process.’
But as it is reported by the RK mass media, referring to the sources that are not always anonymous, ‘the Government conducts active negotiations with the PRC Ministry of Finance and by the end of March will make the decision that will serve the state interests’. Apparently, against the background that other USA partners (Australia, Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany) have also voiced their intention to join the Chinese project, it does not look an evident impudence.
Besides, Beijing, like Moscow, has invited the RK leader to visit the festivities dedicated to the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It is possible that the DPRK leader will be there as well, and we shall see whether this invitation will be accepted against the background of the American-Chinese relations.
The Korean saying ‘when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken’ points well at the current situation. Accepting ‘offers that cannot be turned down’, Seoul tries to ensure a room for maneuver, though it is not always successful. So far Seoul manages to say ‘yes’ to all significant offers in hope that their consent to certain offers of some will not cause criticism for the consent to the offers of others.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher at the Center of Korean Research of the Institute of Far-Eastern Studies with the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.