On March 23 – 25, 2021, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited South Korea. This was Lavrov’s first visit to Seoul since 2013, when he accompanied President Vladimir Putin. And before that, Lavrov had visited Seoul in 2009, after a trip to North Korea.
This year’s event, devoted to the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relationship between Russia and South Korea, had been initially scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, on September 28, 2020, the South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-in had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin and invited him to visit Seoul. Later that year, in December 2020, Mr. Moon sent Woo Yoon-keun, one of the oldest members of the ruling party, as a special envoy to Russia to discuss the details of celebration of the forthcoming 30th anniversary of diplomatic relationship, as well as to look into the ways of further strengthening the relationship between Russia and South Korea.
Prior to leaving for Korea, Sergey Lavrov had an online press conference with Korea’s media representatives, where he emphasized that “the Republic of Korea is our important and promising partner in the Asia-Pacific region.” As part of the agenda for the future discussions he mentioned the cooperation in combating COVID-19, as well as “the main subjects on the international and regional agenda, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
On March 23, Sergey Lavrov arrived in Seoul from China where he had negotiations with Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. On March 24, the Heads of Foreign Affairs of Russia and the Republic of Korea took part in the ceremony celebrating the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relationship between the countries. This ceremony started the Year of Cultural Exchanges between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Korea. To comply with social distancing regulations, about 50 representatives from the both countries attended the ceremony.
The bilateral negotiations between the ministers took place on March 25. As reported in the press release issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “the relevant issues in the bilateral relationship, including the schedule of political contacts were discussed in detail. The parties focused on potential expansion of cooperation in practical areas, including the implementation of the “Nine bridges” concept, as well as joint efforts in combating the COVID-19 outbreak”.
After the negotiations a joint press conference was held, where the parties “reaffirmed the high level of our political dialogue and our resolve to continue expanding and invigorating our contacts, including between our presidents and governments.” The Republic of Korea was again mentioned as “one of Russia’s most important partners in Asia Pacific”. On the same day, Sergey Lavrov flew back to Russia.
A lot was said, but the but the gist of Lavrov’s speeches can be summarized as follows:
- When celebrating the 30th anniversary of establishing bilateral diplomatic relationship, the parties highly appreciated the progress in diplomatic, economic and other areas. Chung Eui-yong, the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister, “pointed to a sharp rise in bilateral exchanges, such as an increase in two-way trade, which rose to over US$22 billion in 2019 from $200 million recorded 30 years ago, stressing that it is proof that the two countries are ‘good friends and partners’.”
- Lavrov stated that “the historical decision made on September 30, 1990 was a logical result of Moscow’s New Political Thinking and Seoul’s Northern Policy. In other words, our countries abandoned the fallacious Cold War logic that divided them for several decades.” According to Lavrov, “Russia and the Republic of Korea maintain truly neighborly relations based on common long-term interests and distinguished by a high level of mutual respect and trust.” The author also notes that previously the relationship between the two countries were called strategic partnership, which stands for even closer relationship.
- Besides that, Lavrov hinted at the fact that economic component is the main element of this partnership. “Economic turnover and investments are drivers for rapid development of bilateral cooperation.”
- Lavrov “expressed concern that the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific region could be an attempt to create a bloc against specific countries”. He stated that even the term “Indo-Pacific region” was introduced as part of the same attempt to change the common terminology. In this context Lavrov highlighted “ASEAN’s central role in the development of regional cooperation in all spheres.” He also focused on the importance of the existing forums, “such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting”.
- The Republic of Korea and Russia agreed to continue their close relationship and extend cooperation to achieve progress in establishing the peace on the Korea Peninsula using political and diplomatic methods: “Moscow and Seoul are still committed to the soonest continuation of negotiations between the parties involved, in order to settle down all the problems of this region.” Chung Eui-yong “asked Russia to continue to play a constructive role going forward,” and Lavrov “emphasized that it is important for all concerned countries to make various endeavors, including the suspension of an arms race and all types of military activities, to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula ().”
- The plans presented by the Korea’s President Moon Jae-in during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in 2017, were not discussed. These plans were aimed at finally getting the North Korea involved in resolving the denuclearization issue.
- The parties discussed the possibility of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visiting Seoul. The South Korean party confirmed their invitation for Putin to visit the Republic of Korea (South Korean leaders have visited Russia many times, and according to the protocol it was the right time to pay the return visit), and Lavrov replied that “as soon as the epidemiological situation is better, we’ll get back to this issue.” Analysts believe that the chances for this visit during 2021 are rather high since, at least, both leaders have been vaccinated.
- The parties highly appreciated the cooperation in the context of the “Nine Bridges” concept proposed by President Moon Jae-in, including the cooperation in railway transportation, energy supplies, nuclear energy, shipbuilding, healthcare, and medicine. The plan to implement this concept was signed in October 2020. However, they were talking not about what had already been done, but about the projects being implemented or prepared for implementation. For example, about the “large-scale investment cooperation projects … in the Russian Far East and Arctic regions” or negotiations on establishing a Russian-Korean investment fund worth up to $1 billion (though the relevant arrangements were made back in 2014, following President Putin’s visit to South Korea, but these arrangements never left the paper). The details of the above arrangements will be discussed during the intergovernmental Russian-Korean joint commission for the economical and scientific cooperation which will be held later this year in Seoul. For sure, Russia is interested in attracting South Korea’s investments and technologies to the Far East, but so far Korean businesses have not shown their desire to participate in the long-term projects requiring a lot of investments.
- Special focus was given to the cooperation in the field of medicine. In particular, discussions touched upon an agreement signed in November 2020 between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and Korean GL Rapha, which regulates the production of Russian Sputnik V vaccine to be commenced in the Republic of Korea. Korean partners also demonstrated their interest in the medical clusters being developed by Russian party in the Russky Island as part of the Skolkovo project.
- However, out of all the above mentioned documents only one was signed – the 2021 – 2022 Plan of exchanges between the Foreign Affairs Ministries of the both countries.
Two more important events took place simultaneously with the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit. The first one was the visit to South Korea by the Deputy Minister of Defense, Alexander Fomin, who came there almost immediately after Sergey Lavrov’s visit. Fomin had a meeting with his Korean counterpart, Park Jae Ming, and Deputy Chairman of the Committee of the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea, Lieutenant General Yoon Eui Chol. They discussed security issues in the region, placing special emphasis on the situation in North East Asia and on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the status and the future prospects of bilateral cooperation in the military field.
South Korea once again “called for Russia’s active support and cooperation for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” to which Fomin responded that Russia has also been committed to the peaceful settlement of the situation in the region. The two sides “signed an agreement to boost defense cooperation and vowed to expand regular consultative channels and senior-level personnel exchanges”.
Secondly, according to Thelma therapeutics, on March 22, a group of high-ranking representatives from the Chumakov Federal Scientific Center, where the Russian CoviVac vaccine was developed, arrived in South Korea. They were accompanied by Smart Biotech’s top managers and staff members. It is assumed that this visit is related to establishing global production facilities and arranging distribution of the vaccine, despite the fact that South Korea uses the Astra Zeneca’s vaccine at the moment.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Sergey Lavrov’s visit will serve as “an opportunity to strengthen strategical links between the two countries and will contribute to better and even more cooperative relationship.” However, the author has an impression that, in fact, it was rather a ceremonial event which could not be cancelled or ignored. Speeches about economic cooperation are ear-pleasing, if one were to forget the fact that the “Nine Bridges” concept is based on several revised proposals from the predecessors of the current South Korea’s President. Discussions about cooperation in humanitarian field arouse more interest, however, even in these discussions the ceremonial nature of the event is more evident than any real consequences.
It appears more important that the Russian party used this visit as a chance to declare its stance in the region and to oppose the US efforts in building alliances which may have either anti-China, or even anti-Russia orientation. For Seoul, this visit is also a formal opportunity to demonstrate the independence and multi-vector nature of Moon Jae-in’s foreign policy. Sergey Lavrov’s visit took place shortly after the earlier US-South Korean “2+2” negotiations, which, however, did not result in Seoul’s unambiguously joining the US plans.
Generally, in the author’s opinion, the relations between Russia and the Republic of Korea can be described as a “stable partnership”, without any force majeure. There is little chance that the two countries will have a positive breakthrough in their relationship or a major falling out any time soon.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.