The South Korean President Moon Jae-in made an official State Visit to Russia from 21 to 23 June.
This was the third summit (after their meetings during the G20 summit in July and the Eastern Economic Forum in September 2017) and the first State Visit to Russia in 19 years (South Korean leaders’ visits at other times did not have such a high status).
On 20 June, during an exclusive interview with the Russian media, the South Korean President emphasized that he shares the Russian President’s goal, which entails denuclearization and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. He also stated that once peace is established on the Korean Peninsula, this achievement will need to evolve into a multipronged approach to cooperation on safety in Northeast Asia. He also promised to develop South Korea’s close cooperation with Russia. Moon Jae-in stressed the importance of economic cooperation among South Korea, DPRK and Russia, noting the possibility of discussing joint projects in the transportation sphere and the power industry, which will become catalysts behind the development.
On 21 June, Moon Jae-in addressed the plenary meeting of the State Duma. This was the first speech made by a South Korean President at the Federal Assembly. During the speech, the South Korean leader said that President Vladimir Putin’s “new eastern policy” represents a new vision aimed at peace and joint human prosperity, which bridges achievements of both the Western and Eastern civilizations. Mr. Moon reminded his audience that the goal of his “new northern policy” is to establish everlasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and ensure mutual prosperity in Northeast Asia. This is how South Korea and Russia could provide endless opportunities for development in the Eurasian region. At present, historical changes are taking place on the Korean Peninsula, the world has witnessed South Korea and DPRK agreeing on complete denuclearization and end to hostilities. The South Korean leader emphasized that when lasting peace is established on the Korean Peninsula, genuine economic cooperation between South Korea and North Korea will begin, followed by a trilateral partnership that includes Russia.
That day President Moon Jae-in held negotiations with the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The meeting participants noted the positive changes taking place on the Korean Peninsula after the Inter-Korean and the North Korea-United States summits, thus creating new opportunities for collaboration between Seoul and Moscow. The Head of the Russian Administration praised the role the South Korean leadership had played in arranging the North Korea-United States summit and expressed hope that a trilateral partnership, involving the two Koreas and Russia in the transportation sphere and the power industry, will develop. Moon Jae-in suggested drawing up a framework of joint actions for implementing trilateral projects, on the basis of results from their careful analyses.
The summit itself took place on 22 June. Moon Jae-in and Vladimir Putin made statements in support of establishing a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. During his conversation with the Russian leader, Moon Jae-in noted that he highly values the contribution Russia has made to conflict resolution on the Korean Peninsula and the successful summits held between the two Koreas, and the US and North Korea. Putin, in turn, promised to continue to lend his support to the denuclearization process, stating that he and his nation have always been in favor of dialogue between the two Koreas.
As far as the economic partnership is concerned, Moon Jae-in emphasized that South Korea and Russia are key partners on issues of cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and the Eurasian continent, which is why Russia plays a crucial role in Seoul’s foreign policy. Vladimir Putin, in turn, expressed hope that the level of economic cooperation will increase, noting that the bilateral trade volumes had reached almost 20 billion US dollars, but opportunities for further growth remain.
The same day the South Korean President addressed the Russia-Korea Business Forum, in which approximately 280 representatives from business spheres of the two nations participated. Moon Jae-in announced the start of negotiations on preparing a multifaceted and mutually beneficial free trade agreement and reiterated his call to reach bilateral trade volumes of 30 billion US dollars by 2020, when South Korea and Russia will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of their diplomatic relations. According to Mr. Moon, problems with the world economy and trade protectionism have resulted in lower trade volumes between South Korea and Russia. However, in recent times the situation has improved, and in 2017, bilateral trade volumes increased by 40% amounting to 19 billion US dollars. Moon Jae-in said “This is just the beginning, our relationship offers limitless opportunities”. He also added that once permanent peace is established on the Korean Peninsula, economic cooperation between South Korea and Russia will enter a new phase.
So what are the formal outcomes of the visit if we are to look beyond words?
- A consensus has been reached on the start of negotiations on the free trade agreement between the two countries, after that South Korean companies working in the spheres of logistics, medicine, construction, tourism, information technologies and cultural content will be able to enter the Russian market.
- An agreement has been reached between JSC Russian Railways and the Korea Railroad Corporation on conducting a feasibility study to arrange rail transportation along the route South Korea-Russia- Europe, which includes the trilateral project to link the Trans-Korean and the Trans-Siberian railway networks and involves participation by South Korea, DPRK and Russia. The two sides have signed the appropriate memorandum of understanding.
- The parties have agreed to collaborate on increasing deliveries of Russian natural gas to South Korea and continue their cooperation in this sphere, as well as review the possibility of exploring oil and gas fields, and mining other hydrocarbon raw materials together.
- Joint research will be conducted on delivering Russian natural gas via pipelines to the south of the Korean Peninsula via DPRK.
- A new cooperation framework has been prepared on reaching annual bilateral trade volumes of 30 billion US dollars; and eight memoranda of understanding between the Ministry of Energy of the Russian Federation and several companies have been signed on initiating collaboration in the power industry, manufacturing and investment spheres.
The third summit may be soon followed by the fourth, as Moon Jae-in has been invited to the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok to be held from 11 to 13 September. The Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of DPRK Kim Jong-un has also received an invitation to this forum.
Notably, the results may be summed up as “the parties have reached a consensus and are prepared to reach further agreements”. Viewing the visit in this light does not justify its official status. Cooperation in the transportation sphere and the power industry had been discussed prior to the start of the State Visit, but talks on all the specifics have been postponed to a later date. All the discussions about peace and denuclearization are essentially all talk; in essence, both Moscow and Seoul have confirmed that they are in favor of reducing regional tensions, but this was clear from the outset.
There is nothing new. The first memorandum of understanding in relation to the Trans-Korean pipeline was signed as far back as September 2008. The agreement to begin construction was reached in 2011; however, after the death of Kim Jong-il, the project was shelved, and the South Korean conservatives yet again relished the swift downfall of the North Korean regime.
Negotiations on preparing a free trade agreement also began at the beginning of 2007, but in 2 years’ time they ended on the initiative coming from the Russian side.
Even the Eurasian idea is not Moon’s unique creation. At the start of her rule, Park Geun-hye worked on the concept called Eurasian Initiatives, in large part aimed at diversifying political and economic ties and befriending continental powers. The premise then was the same as now: “see how well we could trade if it was not for North Korea, so let’s do something about DPRK together, on behalf of Eurasia”. Still, Mr. Moon diplomatically avoided mentioning his predecessor by instead bridging his ideas to Roh Tae-woo’s “northern policy”.
From the author’s viewpoint, Mr. Moon is searching for areas that he can deploy certain political strengths in with maximum ease. Solving vital issues in South Korea’s relations with other neighboring countries is not realistic considering its dependence on the US from a political perspective, and on China, from an economic one. The inter-Korean cooperation has its limits, and Moon is changing his focus to South Korea’s collaboration with Russia, the results from which will be viewed favorably inside South Korea.
In comparison with Moscow’s and Seoul’s relations with other neighboring nations, the relationship between Russia and South Korea is relatively problem-free. However, the other side of the coin of this problem-free relationship is that there are few shared interests between Russia and South Korea in politics and economy. Otherwise all grand projects repeatedly mentioned by Moon Jae-in would have been implemented by now.
This is why, despite the visit being the latest important stepping stone in strengthening the friendly relations between the Russian Federation and South Korea, the meeting cannot be referred to as a key milestone. Still, it is worth hoping that these memoranda of understanding will transform into something more tangible.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”