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The Peninsula

What Putin’s Return Means for Russia and the Korean Peninsula

Published March 6, 2012

By Dr. Richard Weitz

During his campaign for the Russian presidency, Vladimir Putin wrote several lengthy articles detailing his views and policy recommendations. In his foreign policy treatise, Putin devoted a surprising amount of attention to North Korea.

Putin writes that, “We have consistently advocated the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – exclusively through political and diplomatic means — and the early resumption of Six-Party Talks.” At the same time, Putin says that. “I am convinced that today it is essential to be particularly careful. It would be inadvisable to try and test the strength of the new North Korean leader and provoke a rash countermeasure.

“In coming years, “We will continue conducting an active dialogue with the leaders of North Korea and developing good-neighborly relations with it, while at the same time trying to encourage Pyongyang to settle the nuclear issue. Obviously,” Putin adds, “it would be easier to do this if mutual trust is built up and the inter-Korean dialogue resumes on the peninsula.”

In some ways Moscow is well-situated to serve as a key mediator in international efforts to resolve the disputes between North Korea and South Korea. Not only does it have good relations with both Koreas, but Russian economic and security interests would be bolstered by a lengthy period of harmony and stability in the Koreas.

For starters, Russia shares ethnic and historical ties with Koreans as well as a 17-km long border with the DPRK. This proximity ensures Russian interest in participating, even indirectly, in any multilateral dialogue concerning the Koreas.

More importantly, Russian policy makers seek to enhance Russia’s integration with the flourishing East Asian region. Securing additional South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese investment and trade would help revitalize the Russian economy, especially the lagging but strategically significant region of the Russian Far East (RFE). Russia’s trade relations with the major East Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and China falls far behind these three countries’ economic interactions with each other.

Russian entrepreneurs envisage converting the DPRK into a transit country for Russian energy and economic exports to South Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries. Such a development would further Russia’s integration into East Asia as well as revitalize Moscow’s ties with North Korea. They have discussed linking a trans-Korean railroad with Russia’s rail system, which would allow Russia to become a transit country for South Korean trade with Europe, which now involves mostly long-distance shipping. Furthermore, Russian planners want to construct energy pipelines between Russia and South Korea across DPRK territory.

This bright scenario has one major problem: it cannot occur without a reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. For this reason, Russian diplomats have regularly engaged in high-profile Korean diplomacy.

Unfortunately, a decade of Russian diplomacy has had little impact on regional affairs. Breaking with precedent, Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang in July 2000 to bolster and reenergize ties. The new Russian president also hoped to bolster his diplomatic credentials. But his efforts failed to secure a tangible agreement, souring Moscow on Pyongyang for several more years.

Almost a decade later, both Russia and China each sent two high-level delegations to Pyongyang in 2009. The DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong Il, decided to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and PRC Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, however, he did not so much as greet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or Russian parliamentary leader Sergey Mironov.

Russia’s problem is that its economic and political influence in the Asia-Pacific region is too limited. The territorial dispute with Tokyo over the South Kuriles/Northern Territories excludes a genuine Russian-Japanese partnership. Although Russian ties with Beijing and Washington are better, Chinese and U.S. diplomats focus their Korean diplomacy on Pyongyang, Seoul, and each other. In order to increase their regional influence, Russian officials must become more conciliatory towards Japan, and less beholden to China.

Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Jonathan Davis’ photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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