SEOUL– With the six-party talks in the deep freeze, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is looking east to help break the ice. In his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week Roh is expected to both press Putin to play a more active diplomatic role in resolving the nuclear standoff with North Korea, and deepen bilateral economic relations.
While China has won plaudits from the United States and others for convening and hosting the six-party talks in a display of masterful diplomatic intermediation, concrete results thus far have been meager. By contrast, Putin, having held three previous summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, is best positioned among the leaders of the six parties to help bridge the divide between Pyongyang and its interlocutors.
Ironically, although more economically dependent on Beijing, Pyongyang may have greater confidence in Moscow diplomatically. Personal chemistry and mind-set is important here but so is realpolitik.
There are many conflicting elements in Chinese policy toward North Korea ranging from refugees to the price of rice. Russia, however, aims at a solid balance between the North and its southern rival, and has the greater freedom of maneuver. Furthermore, as the supplier of nuclear reactors and components to the North in the 1980s, Moscow’s insistence that Pyongyang adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a precondition for receiving such assistance gives it a degree of political leverage and moral high ground that others lack.
Most importantly, as the world’s second-ranking nuclear power, Moscow is best positioned to broker a deal. If Pyongyang is really serious about resolving the nuclear impasse, could it have a better partner? And if it is not, Putin would be unlikely to put his prestige on the line.
South Korea and Russia have much to discuss on the economic front, both bilaterally and regionally. The restoration of diplomatic relations a decade ago was premised in part on grandiose expectations of mutual economic gain — of a booming Korean investment in a revitalized Russia and the latter as a bulk raw materials and energy supplier to South Korea. But these hopes were never realized. While South Korean products ranging from autos to cell phones to washing machines remain highly prized by Russian consumers, trade volume is flat compared with a decade ago.
The more immediate need, however, is to upgrade relations between Russia and the Korean Peninsula as a whole. Russia and South Korea enclose the North like bookends, yet both are committed to opening it up.
Indeed, Moscow’s energy initiatives for refurbishing the North Korean electric grid and upgrading its railroad system, rolling stock and infrastructure to connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway are the counterpoint to the soon-to-be-inaugurated rail and road corridors that run from the South through the DMZ to the North’s Kaesong Industrial Park.
But despite their commitment to regional integration, Seoul and Moscow are being held hostage to Pyongyang’s decision-making regarding the nuclear standoff and North-South cooperation.
The vast oil and natural-gas resources of the Russian Far East could free the entire Northeast Asian region from energy dependency on extra-regional sources — if the Peninsula’s security dilemma can be peacefully and expeditiously resolved.
More broadly, the confluence of security and economics are driving Russia and South Korea, former Cold War adversaries, into the same camp, while at the summit itself Washington and Pyongyang will not only be closely following developments but will be very much present in the discussions taking place.
Seoul, however, no longer automatically does Washington’s bidding. It has hewed an independent line at the six-party talks, favoring greater incentives to secure North Korea’s cooperation than Washington was willing to support. Nor is Pyongyang the Soviet satellite of yore, if it ever was.
Still, neither Seoul nor Moscow is in a position to move Washington or Pyongyang in a diplomatic direction that they do not want to go. The test of success will be the ability of the two presidents to lay out a path to move nuclear diplomacy forward on the Peninsula and to realize the region’s economic potential.
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