Russia’s Far East: A key to settle North Korea?
On 6-7 September, 2017 the Eastern Economic Forum was held in Vladivostok for the third time since its establishment in 2015 by Vladimir Putin’s exclusive order. Under Putin’s patronage, the Forum is considered to be a platform for foreign investments, the economic acceleration of Eastern Russia and for expanding international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. The Russia’s Far East is not a random choice to be promoted and developed: the large territory and remote location from the European part of Russia, bad demographical situation and steady depopulation from approximately 6,293 million in 2010 to 6,182 million in 2017 (4.21% of the Russian population) make the region an economically vulnerable one.
Acknowledging the problems the region faces, Putin is attempting to develop the Far East emphasising its competitive advantages, preferential tax treatment and streamlined administrative procedures that should make the region economically comparable to areas in the Asia Pacific. A supportive investment climate and administrative resources (e.g. a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for foreign businessmen) are designed to enhance foreign investments, trade and financial ties primarily focusing on the two regional powers of Japan and South Korea.
The question arises is how far Russia can play its Far East card considering the historical circumstances and current geopolitical situation. Territorial disputes with Japan over the Kuril Islands (annexed by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War Two) remain a stumbling block in bilateral relations. In addition, in the context of a rising China, the strong alliance between Japan and the U.S. was reaffirmed by regular official meetings and the friendly relationship between Abe and Trump.
The prospects of Russia’s cooperation with South Korea look more optimistic. Whilst addressing the Forum, Korea’s Moon Jae-in seemed keen on expanding economic ties with the Far East. Moon’s emotional and genuine speech dedicated to the South Korea’s new northern policy was memorable. He noted the symbolic meanings and links to the region through shared memories and shared history. There are the history of Korean immigrants to Russia’s Far East, the Trans-Siberian Railway – a corridor that connects the whole continent with Asia-Pacific – Russian classical literature and ballet and their relative popularity in Korea to name a few. Moon’s ambitious vision was summarised into the policy of “nine bridges” that Korea intends to build to the region, opening the era of the Pacific Ring. The policy includes natural gas, railway, the Northern Sea Route, shipbuilding and agriculture that should help both countries to flourish.
Finally, Moon found a symbolic similarity between himself and Putin, personalising the relationships of the two leaders. Putin was described as having the spirit of the Amur tiger, and Moon’s given name contains a syllable meaning ‘here is the tiger’. This emotiveness was clearly notable and illustrates how a new narrative might be promoted.
Nonetheless, putting aside emotions, we might suggest that Moon’s main concern revolves around the insecurity on the Korean peninsula. Why is Moon eager to have closer economic and diplomatic ties with Russia? The answer to this question lies in the desire by the South Korean authorities to find diplomatic solutions to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis and to prevent pre-emptive strikes. Moon’s attempts to build relationships with the U.S. has condemned his presidency to impotence. This has increased Moon’s desire for better ties with Russia.
Russia is perceived to be a key diplomatic partner that does not recognise North Korea’s nuclear status and insists on the prompt return to dialogue and negotiations as the only possible way for a comprehensive settlement. In addition, Moon started diplomatic interactions with France and Australia to lure North Korea back to dialogue and to the peaceful resolution of the nuclear deadlock.
Moon is a very pragmatic politician, seeking to solve the North Korean problem using all possible ways. He is building up multilateral relations with the Western powers to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea. At the same time, Moon promotes trilateral projects with the participation of the two Koreas and Russia, to connect the Korean Peninsula and the Russian Far East, with the aim of eventually bringing the peninsula to peace.
As published at the Asia Dialogue of the University of Nottingham on September 25, 2017.