Forum Explores Russia’s Role in Resolving Divisions and Fostering Development in Korea

Eric Olsen
May 15, 2015

“Russia is strongly interested in better relations between North and South Korea,” Korea and Far East expert Dr. Alexander Zhebin told a forum, “Russia and the Korean Peninsula: Policy and Investment Implications,” hosted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on May 14, 2015.

Dr. Alexander Zhebin addresses a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The director of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Moscow, Dr. Zhebin spent 12 years in North Korea as a journalist and diplomat. He emphasized that inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation will both “remove a threat of military conflict right next to Russia’s Far Eastern borders and promote a more favorable environment for development of Russia’s bi-lateral economic ties with the two Korean states.”

The forum presented remarks from Dr. Zhebin on Russia’s policies and priorities in the Far East, followed by a roundtable discussion with moderator Dr. Victor Cha, Korea Chair at CSIS and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University; Dr. Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow and director of CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program; and Dr. Gilbert Rosman, emeritus Musgrave Professor of sociology at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The forum is the fourth in a series on Korea reunification jointly sponsored by the Global Peace Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Noting that Russia’s renewed interest in the Far East, its so-called

From left: Moderator Dr.Victor Cha, Dr. Alexander Zhebin, Dr. Andrew Kuchins, and Dr. Gilbert Rosman.

“Turning to the East” policy, preceded recent security concerns in Europe over events in the Ukraine, Dr. Zhebin said that Russia’s trade and economic cooperation with South Korea was balanced by long-standing ties with North Korea, whose economy, including more than 70 industrial enterprises, was developed with Soviet assistance.

He particularly sited the development of rail and natural gas pipelines and electrical transmission lines linking Russia and North Korea, which hold the promise of significant economic development for the region.

A recent memorandum of understanding signed by a consortium of South Korean companies has the potential advancing joint development, Dr. Zhebin said. “Participation in the project will provide the South with a chance to build trust with the North and with an opportunity to work with Pyongyang within a new trilateral framework.”

These and other efforts he said provide new instruments for engaging North Korea. “Economic cooperation will help to develop the DPRK economy, to make the North Koreans more prepared to live in a modern society. In other words, it will help to lessen the existing gap between two parts of the country and cut reunification’s cost.”

The forum presented contrasting perspectives on Russia’s political and economic interests in the Far East but found common ground on the importance of economic development and benefits of reunification of the Korean peninsula for regional stability.

In remarks during the roundtable, Dr. Gilbert Rosman acknowledged the usefulness of economic overtures but warned against adopting an approach of providing various types of assistance to North Korea and then “trusting them to turn around and become a responsible state that may eventually be de-nuclearized.” Paraphrasing the view of some Russian analysts that South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. is the problem in the region, or that a regional security structure is the solution, he said such a perspective suggests a “new Cold War in Asia” with a balance of power as an approach to achieving stability in the region.

Dr. Andrew Kuchins said there were important strategic reasons why Moscow and DPRK were reaching out to each other. “Russia is a huge country with major interests all over its periphery,” he said. “Moscow sees exactly what everyone sees—a balance of economic power shifting to Asia. Russia is well aware that China is going to be the largest investor, but it is very important for Russia that they not be over-leveraged by Chinese investment.

Dr. Andrew Kuchins: “The fundamentally important thing happening on the Eurasian continent is connectivity and how to take advantage of new transit corridors, and this is where reunification and a soft landing of the Korean conflict is important.”

“The fundamentally important thing happening on the Eurasian continent is connectivity and how to take advantage of new transit corridors,” Dr. Kuchins added, “and this is where reunification and a soft landing of the Korean conflict is important, because none of this can happen unless there is rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang. I think South Korea and North Korea and every country on China’s periphery, shares some degree of concern about being over-leveraged by China’s economic power and political influence. They want to have options and alternatives and this is how I see Russia’s approach to Korean peninsula, and why Russia is unequivocally supportive of reunification of Korean peninsula.”

Previous forums have examined China’s policy toward Korean reunification, Mongolia’s diplomatic role in bridging divisions between the Koreas, and civil society contributions to development on the Korean peninsula.

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