This is the ninth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, China, the United States, Japan, the European Union, ASEAN, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
By Jenna Gibson
As a candidate and since he has taken office, Moon Jae-In has paid little attention to Russia, and the few comments he has made have revolved almost entirely around Moscow’s role in North Korea denuclearization talks.
According to a policy book released ahead of the election, Moon intends to develop a “strategic partnership” with Russia, which consists of two points: “Strengthen the cooperation to resolve North Korea nuclear issue and develop ROK-DPRK-Russia cooperation accordingly,” and “Expand economic cooperation such as co-developing the North Pole Route, energy, etc.”
In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 12, Moon focused on the first point, emphasizing a need to work together with Russian on the DPRK issue and return to the negotiating table, according to a YTN report. And he named lawmaker and former Incheon mayor Song Young-gil, who has received an award from the Russian government for increasing exchanges between the two countries, as his special envoy to Moscow.
But critics have pointed out that Moon seems to be de-prioritizing the Russian relationship. In his inaugural address, for example, he said “I will not rest until peace is settled on the Korean Peninsula. I will fly to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, if needed, and I will also go to Pyongyang, if conditions are met.” Note that he has mentioned visiting five of the Six Party Talks member countries – but there is no mention of Russia in the entire speech.
This oversight likely won’t play well in Moscow, at least according to a forthcoming paper on Russia’s view toward North Korea sanctions by the Carnegie Endowment’s Alexander Gabuev, which he recently presented at KEI.
“A lot of Russian policy is driven by this very emotional feeling of making Russia great again, making Russia seen as an international big player,” he said. So if Russia is sidestepped through things like unilateral sanctions (or being omitted in a policy speech about DPRK policy), that will not play well in Moscow.
Further, Russia’s goals on the peninsula may be fundamentally different than what Moon has in mind. “Since military strikes on North Korean facilities or removing the leadership is not an option, there is not so much Russia can do to stop it,” Gabuev said, “So literally we pay lip service to the denuclearization mantra, but in real terms Russia doesn’t see it as a realistic option, or as a threat.”
In order to move forward, President Moon must be careful to include Russia in his strategy and public statements about denuclearization, especially if he maintains his stated goal of resuming the Six Party Talks. And he must also be thinking about how to use Russia’s position of cautious cooperation on the North Korea issue to his advantage.
One of the ways Moon can do this is to lean more heavily on the second point laid out in his policy paper – increasing cooperation with on the economic front. According to Russia scholar Stephen Blank, Russia’s North Korea policy is intrinsically tied to economics, as he wrote in a KEI paper in 2015. “The fundamental purpose of Russia’s Korean policy is to preserve peace in Korea and Asia generally, as peace is indispensable to any development of Siberia and the RFE [Russian Far East] on the basis of foreign and domestic trade and investment.”
If President Moon can harness this goal, he can simultaneously fulfill his pledge of remaining open to more engagement with Pyongyang while also giving Moscow more incentive to lean harder on denuclearization.
Russia plays a unique role in the international community when it comes to dealing with North Korea. While Moscow and Beijing generally agree on the imperative of maintaining stability above all else, Russia also feels an underlying need to assert its position at the table to be seen as an important international player. For President Moon Jae-In, keeping this second piece in mind will be key to working with the international community as he begins to shape his North Korea policy.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI intern Gwanghyun Pyun contributed research to this post.
Photo from Larry Koester’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.