Russia’s East Asian counterbalance

Exactly one week ago, we discussed South Korea’s President Park visit to Europe, which ended on Friday with a Joint Declaration celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between the EU and the Republic of Korea.

With tensions between Brussels and Moscow running high in advance of the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, and with global media focusing on the all-important Plenary Session of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to counter Europe’s charm offensive by holding bilateral talks and signing a visa-waiver agreement with his Korean counterpart next Tuesday in Seoul. This state visit, which will focus on economic and regional stability issues, carries extra significance, as it will be the first by a leader from Korea’s four neighboring powers (the United States, China, Japan and Russia) since Park Geun-hye took office earlier this year.

As asserted by John W. Bauer, it is no surprise that energy-rich Russia and energy-hungry South Korea have developed a symbiotic attraction. Concurrently, Moscow realizes that, in order to most effectively engage the South Koreans, Russia has to appear to be in a position of influence with respect to the DPRK. This explains why both parties will clearly lay out their goal of denuclearizing North Korea and promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, with Russia presenting itself as a valuable partner towards this goal.

Similarly, it also explains why Seoul is aims to join the ongoing North Korea-Russia rail project (part of the project to link the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Trans-Korean Railway), as well as the Russian plan to revamp the Rajin port and the long-discussed plan to build a gas pipeline connecting Russia and Korea across the Korean Peninsula, which, if finally executed, could bring remarkable economic benefits to the three involved parties.

Even if, as some scholars argue, bilateral relations between Moscow and Seoul have developed rather slowly because both have underestimated the importance of regional economic security and neither has had the motivation to deal with domestic obstacles hampering deeper cooperation, such as the inherent economic difficulties of the Russian Far East and the reluctance of the South Korean government and private sector to invest in Russia in the long term, Putin’s timely response to Park’s European tour is sending a strong signal to the EU: Russia also cares about its far Eastern neighborhood and is ready to counterbalance European efforts there in its own way.

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