In September of 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to work with both Korean states towards a tripartite economic cooperation initiative that would allow for the free flow of Russian gas into the Korean peninsula via a new pipeline while also expanding trade between Russia and both Korean states. At the time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warmly embraced Putin’s proposals, while the DPRK delegation at the Eastern Economic Forum stated that when various security concerns are adequately addressed, Pyongyang too would be interested in pursuing Russia’s proposals.
As Putin’s proposals came only weeks before Donald Trump’s infamous threat to “destroy” the DPRK and just under four months prior to Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s Address in which he stated his intention to enter a new era of peace and cooperation with South Korea, few paid attention to the excitement surrounding Putin’s initial proposal. Now Putin’s proposals are already germinating far sooner than many expected as recently as the beginning of 2018.
In recent weeks, it has been reported that Russia is beginning the early stages of constructing a large modern highway that will help link Russia’s far east with the DPRK border. Today, South Korea looks to export more finished goods into the large Russian market while also seeking cheaper energy imports. Currently, South Korea is largely reliant on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) due the previous impracticability of constructing a pipeline from Russia through the DPRK to South Korea. Because of these realities, Putin’s proposals are once again in the spotlight from Seoul’s perspective, while Russia remains eager to pursue a win-win goal that will see inter-Korean cooperation and a simultaneous expansion of regional trade. These projects could in turn could be integrated into the wider One Belt–One Road trading and logistics initiative as policy makers in Beijing have recently indicated.
In a recent interview with Tass, President Moon spoke optimistically about a would-be Russia-Korea Transport Corridor in the following way:
“Russia and South Korea have huge potential as far as economic, humanitarian and cultural exchanges go. The potential has not been exhausted yet. We can involve North Korea in cooperation after permanent peace is established in the region”.
When addressing proposals to construct a rail link between Russia with South Korea via the DPRK, the South Korean President said,
“Once the Trans-Korean Main Line is built, it may be connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway. In this case, it will be possible to deliver goods from South Korea to Europe, which would be economically beneficial not only to South and North Korea but to Russia as well”.
Moon further stated that areas of cooperation could include “railroads, gas industry, electricity production, the construction of port infrastructure facilities, agriculture, fishery, ship-building and so on”.
While many have rightly stressed that the wider world’s political and commentary classes underestimated Kim Jong-un’s particular zeal for rapid economic reform in the format of a peace through prosperity model, many have equally underestimated Moon Jae-in’s ability to embrace multi-polar projects for the benefit of a South Korean nation that is undergoing a profound economic pivot away from its traditional US partner and towards countries like China, Russia and the ASEAN bloc of nations. In this sense, the timing of Seoul’s shift to multipolarity and the DPRK’s shift away from de-facto isolation could not have come at a better time in respect of the material interests of both Korean states, as well as that of a single Korean people.
But while Seoul continues to sign new economic agreements with countries widely seen as torch-bearers of multipolarity, the South Korean people are also questioning the wisdom of putting a majority of their socio-economic eggs in the American basket.
The proximate cause of many South Koreans’ discontent with the US stems from the 2017 impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Park Geun-hye is herself the daughter of South Korea’s far-right dictator Park Chung-hee who was a vital US asset in Asia during the Cold War, even more so than President Marcos in The Philippines and far more than Suharto in Indonesia.
The younger Park was impeached after mass protests were staged throughout Seoul demanding her removal. While the proximate cause of the protests were Park’s domestic corruption in a society that is culturally averse to the kinds of corruption that are seen as de rigueur in other nations, Park’s authoritarian domestic tendencies were also linked to her incredibly militant, staunchly pro-US policy. Park was so deeply anti-DPRK that her sentiments were even to the right of well-known Communist baiting US war hawks like John McCain.
A special election in May of 2017 brought Moon Jae-in to power, a man whose temperament, official policy statements and experience indicated that he was a man of peace and moderation. But beyond Moon’s moves for peace which have already yielded history making results, it is Moon’s related economic realism which has seen relations between Seoul and Beijing reach all time highs. Because of this, South Korea and China now enjoy the early stages of a free trade agreement which technically came into force in mid 2015. While China and South Korea look to intensify their trade relations, the Obama era free trade agreement signed with Seoul has become deeply unpopular in the Trump White House, so much so that Trump is threatening to “renegotiate” the deal which in effect means modifying the agreement to the point where it is no longer recognisable.
When it comes to trade South Korea has made its own views clear. Earlier this year, the Blue House made preparations to lodge a formal complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regarding America’s so-called anti-dumping laws which impose import tariffs on South Korean steel and transformers. South Korea has therefore learned a vital lesson that Pakistan and Turkey have recently learned: the US will not reward countries that cooperate with it militarily, with productive economic cooperation. Instead, the US if anything uses and abuses such “allies” by taking advantage of their good will on so-called security issues, before forcing such “allies” into one-sided economic arrangements. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not only learned this lesson but has drastically pivoted the geostrategic outlook of his country to form new partnerships with China, Russia and fellow ASEAN members including Malaysia and Vietnam.
As South Korea begins to re-evaluate its economic prospects and realise that its friends are increasingly in Asia/Eurasia rather than in the United States and while Seoul simultaneously re-evaluates its security strategy in the wake of consistently improving ties with the DPRK, many South Koreans might grow increasingly resentful at the fact that for decades, the US has used South Korean soil for the same thing it has used Pakistani and Turkish soil in the past, all without providing any tangible economic benefits to the Korean people and all under the guise is protecting South Korea from what even cynics are now admitting is a non-threat.
Throughout the entire peace process, it has remained the case that Washington and Seoul no longer see eye to eye on free trade, while China and Russia are becoming ever more amiable to South Korean commercial ambitions vis-a-vis an increasingly protectionist USA. Put another way, the closer South Korea pivots towards a Chinese win-win model of peace through prosperity which could take both Korean states closer to One Belt–One Road, the more the US will work to counter these developments, just as it has done in South Asia and the Middle East, in respect of countries who choose to pursue partnerships based more on the attraction of One Belt–One Road than to Wall Street. This could mean that in the near future, the US might ironically become closer to the DPRK than South Korea, as Washington eyes the comparative “clean slate” that is the DPRK economy as a chance to create new business ventures, while South Korea’s mature developed economy under Moon Jae-in, is starting to initiate geo-economic strategies that do not always fit in with American ambitions for the region.
By no means will South Korea become a US enemy anytime soon, but just as it did in Pakistan and Turkey, anti-US sentiments both on the street, in the board rooms and in the halls of government, will only increase in South Korea as the months and years progress. It may eventually reach a breaking point, especially if the US responds in a hostile way to Seoul’s grievances over broken US promises on free trade.
Because of this, Moon’s highly positive statements about a Russia-Korea Transport Corridor should neither be ignored nor dismissed. South Korea is undergoing a gradual, peaceful but nevertheless remarkable shift in its international priorities. When (or if) the US does reduce its military presence in Korea as Donald Trump stated that he aims to do after the DPRK completes de-nuclearisation, the US will at such a point lose its already declining incentives to offer preferential treatment to South Korea. Already, Seoul has discovered that in the Trump era, free trade and military cooperation are not mutually intertwined concepts from Washington’s perspective.
In this sense, the emergence of a more multipolar South Korea is as significant as that of a DPRK that looks to open up to peaceful relations with the South and economic inter-connectivity across a wide variety of international partners.