When the previously winless South Koreans ejected the Germans from the World Cup in a stunning surprise last week, one has to think that people in many countries (not least in Russia) were humming their favorite K-pop tunes (maybe Gangnam Style or some such). Of course, South Korean president Moon Jae-in was actually himself in Russia last week to take in a soccer match and also for a meeting with Russian president Putin.
Moon’s Russia visit received minimal coverage in Western media, possibly because the leading American papers prefer to focus on stories that suggest that Putin’s Russia remains pitifully isolated. They are perhaps too busy carrying stories about John Oliver and such celebrity comedians to talk about Moon’s innovative diplomacy. That’s a shame because I believe that Moon should be the leading candidate for the next Nobel Peace Prize since he initiated the Olympic Truce at the beginning of 2018. Seemingly appreciating Moon’s bold diplomatic maneuvers, the South Korean president was accorded the honor of addressing the Russian Duma. Moon’s visit to Russia is a reminder of Russia’s important role in Northeast Asia.
At the long overdue July 16 meeting in Finland between Putin and President Donald Trump, the agenda will be crowded to overflowing: restraining arms competitions in both nuclear and conventional domains, striving to stop the blood-letting in eastern Ukraine, and then there is the exceedingly tragic and complex problem of Syria to mull over. Many other critical issues, from the Arctic to Afghanistan, also have a claim on the two presidents’ time. Yet, the North Korea situation also absolutely belongs on the agenda of U.S.-Russian relations, not only because the stakes are truly enormous for both countries (and the world generally), but as I have argued before in this forum, Moscow can play a distinctively important role in the unfolding negotiations with Pyongyang.
A summary of the visit appeared in the Russian-language newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta under the interesting headline: “Seoul Wants to Deprive Pyongyang of Nuclear Weapons with Moscow’s Help [Сеул хочет лишить Пхеньяна ядерного оружия с помощью Москвы].” The article acknowledges that relations between Moscow and Seoul were not always so chummy. It is noted that formerly South Koreans viewed Russia as patrons of the hostile North Korea. Likewise, during the Cold War: “Our official press described the South Korean regime as a puppet of American imperialism [У нас официальная пресса именовала южнокорейский режим марионеткой американского империализма].” But, according to this rendering, “That is all in the past [Все это в прошлом]” and Moon is seeking a definitive “end [конец]” to that mode of thinking.
In a move likely designed to get Putin’s attention, Moon apparently brought along two hundred South Korean businessmen. Before the Duma, Moon made the argument that peace on the Korean Peninsula will activate inter-Korean economic trade that will, in turn, expand economic links with Russia. There was apparently much discussion regarding South Korean help for Russia’s electric grid and the export of Russian gas to South Korea. Especially tantalizing for Russians, so it seems, is that Moon has picked up the long-time Russian proposal to link the Russian and Korean rail systems. “With respect to the Tran-Siberian rail line, Moon . . . expressed the hope that it would reach to southernmost city of Busan, where he grew up [Касаясь Транссибирской железнодорожной магистрали, Мун… выразил надежду, что она будет доходить до южного конца полуострова Пусан, где он вырос].”
A leading Russian expert on Northeast Asia, Professor Artyom Lukin, of the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) in Vladivostok, dissected the South Korea-Russia relationship in a paper published in late May 2018. He explains that the trade relationship between the two countries, for the most part, is made up of Russia exporting resources, while importing cars, equipment and consumer items from South Korea. He observes: “Unfortunately, the list of failed projects, that have accumulated over many years, is still much longer than the successfully realized investments [К сожалению, список неудавшихся проектов, накапливавшийся в течение многих лет, пока гораздо длиннее успешно реализованных инвестиций].” Nevertheless, Lukin surmises that Russia can be uniquely useful to South Korea as a “potentially important bridge that leads to the DPRK [потенциально важный мост, который ведет к КНДР].” He discusses Moon’s “New Northern Policy,” and believes that Russia (and China also) have a large role to play in fulfilling the South Korean president’s enticing vision for a newly stable and prosperous Northeast Asia. He identifies many positive signals coming from Seoul, but he also proposes that the return of South Korean investors to the Rajin Port project (wherein Moscow has already committed U.S. $300 million) could build a promising and yet still realistic foundation for the “New Northern Policy.”
I have previously argued in this forum that Moscow’s role in the Korean Crisis is uniquely important, in part because Russia is not China. Indeed, Moscow and Beijing may have a similar approach more or less, but Russia is inherently less threatening to both Koreas, precisely because it does not have the demographic, economic, and cultural heft of the Chinese colossus next door. That argument was particularly salient a year ago when Beijing-Pyongyang relations had soured badly. Naturally, Russia’s role is somewhat diminished now since the blossoming rapprochement in China-North Korea relations that was underlined by Kim Jong-un’s third visit to China in June. Yet, it is obviously preferable and wholly natural that China lead in this situation—a point made emphatically to me by Russian specialists when I visited FEFU in Vladivostok last December to discuss North Korea.
Nevertheless, Russia’s active support can provide invaluable assistance to China’s leading role in denuclearization. After all, Beijing can assist with the five integral steps to facilitate denuclearization. First, it can help establish the DPRK nuclear inventory and inspection regime. Second, it can transport nuclear weapons across the Yalu. Third, warehouse the weapons in a “dual key” arrangement where DPRK retains symbolic (but not actual) control. Fourth, it can strengthen security guarantees and, lastly, it can offer assistance for beleaguered DPRK conventional forces (e.g. tanks / aircraft). But an obvious critique of this approach is that it would effectively make North Korea into a province of China. If Russia were to act together with China, as a more “trusted agent,” however, that might help convince North Korea’s leadership to go along. Rather than a protectorate of Beijing, in other words, Pyongyang could enjoy the prestige of joining a new “Triple Entente” that would encompass Russia, North Korea and China. In fact, this could be a very low key trilateral military pact (following the model of the SCO) that would not be a threat to any other countries, especially to South Korea. Russia would add prestige, long experience with arms control of course, as well as genuine deterrence capabilities that are beyond question. It may also help that Moscow and Beijing now have many years of successful military-political collaboration to draw upon in executing these plans—they are hardly strangers. Unquestionably, the Russian Far East would benefit very substantially from these arrangements.
When Trump meets with Putin on July 16, he is not really in a position to deliver concrete, feasible proposals either with respect to the delicate Ukraine situation or the utterly intractable Syrian mess. Yet, the Trump administration has already invested huge time and political capital at trying to settle the North Korean nuclear issue. Nobody is suggesting that the next steps are easy or obvious. However, Russia has indicated it is willing and ready to play a constructive role, and this was again underlined by Moon’s critical meeting with Putin last week. If Trump’s team is wise, they will spend significant time and effort in Finland talking through the “end game” solution to the North Korea nuclear situation with Putin and his capable North Korea experts.
We began this essay, noting that everyone (including all Russia experts) are rightly busy discussing soccer at this moment, but let’s not forget about ice hockey. Recall that Moon’s dynamic peace initiative began with the inelegant stitching together of the North Korean and South Korean women’s ice hockey squads. They may not have had great success on the ice, but those brave and stoic women started something immensely important as we all know now.
Likewise, a Russian hockey player by the name of Alex Ovechkin (who happens to be one of Putin’s friends) has thrilled and united the American capital like never before in recent memory. Ovechkin and his Russian teammates did not seem to have any trouble working smoothly with Americans and other squad members from Sweden and Denmark in delivering the Stanley Cup to the shores of the Potomac for the very first time. Strangely enough, not even Washington’s plethora of Russia hawks could call this a “Russian influence operation.” Perhaps Ovechkin and American Capitals star T. J. Oshie should join Trump together on Air Force One’s journey to Finland? These two exceptional athletes could show off their well-earned cup while reminding both Trump and Putin of the enduring value of Russian-American strategic coordination. Such coordination could well be of pivotal importance in bringing peace and stability to Northeast Asia and beyond.