South Korea might finally be ready to recognize Russia as an important partner and actor in resolving the North Korean security crisis.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se, second from right, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, left, during a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding between the two countries in Seoul, November 13, 2013. Photo: AP
On June 13, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow to discuss their views on the North Korean security threat. Most importantly, the two high-level diplomats agreed not to recognize North Korea as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. They also mutually agreed on the need for continued cooperation between the two countries on North Korean denuclearization in the context of the UN Security Council.
Compared with Japan, South Korea has taken a generally more dismissive stance toward Russia in terms of coordinating a regional response to North Korea's nuclear test and long-range satellite launch. The common view on regional interstate cooperation over the so-called “Korean knot” has been to see a rather simplistic division of informal blocs.
According to this bloc thinking, there’s China, North Korea and Russia on one side and Japan, South Korea and the United States on the other. Russia's invitation to the Six Party Talks, a move that had long been opposed by the United States, in fact was largely a quid pro quo in exchange for the U.S. inviting Japan into the discussions [the Six Party Talks are a series of multilateral negotiations held since 2003 and attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to dismantle North Korea's nuclear program - Editor's note].
Japan's outreach to Russia throughout this year underscores the erroneously simplistic nature of such views. Now, however, after incidents including direct accusations by one high-ranking South Korean official that Russia supplied North Korea with technology necessary for its rocket launch, the South Korean foreign minister's recent visit to Moscow may provide Russia with a measure of what it has long been seeking in the ongoing Korean security crisis: namely, recognition that it is an important partner and actor in this unfolding saga.
A visit by a South Korean official such as Yun to Russia is particularly important for one main reason. Many Koreans view security issues pertaining to North Korea as something that is largely their own preserve. With an undercurrent of nationalism, many Koreans hold the attitude that the "Korean knot" is something that should be solved with a minimum of interference from outsiders.
While all parties realize that it is highly unrealistic to expect that the problem can be solved only between the two Koreas, the general rule of thumb has largely been to try and solve the problem with as few countries involved as possible.
A visit by the South Korean foreign minister to Russia therefore sends a strong signal not only to Russia but to all of the other countries involved: It might indicate that they need the Kremlin's help and could recognize Russia's role as important.
Yet, before observers jump to the conclusion that this marks a definitive shift in South Korea's stance toward Russia, it is important to keep a few things in mind.
First, discussions regarding closer economic cooperation between Russia and South Korea have come right on the heels of the security meeting. It makes little sense that the two sides could discuss trade and development without also touching upon the major elephant in the room - North Korea. In fact, the ongoing security quandary has caused no shortage of headaches for Russia and its hopes to realize a greater level of economic activity on the Korean Peninsula.
A single meeting at this high of a level between Russia and South Korea after Russia had been somewhat marginalized might provide Russia with a temporary boost in diplomatic credibility.
However, the true test and verification of Russia's importance as an actor in the region will be the extent to which the Russia-South Korea node in the complex network of bilateral and multilateral coordination regarding North Korea actually provides a measure of substantive progress toward resolving the crisis.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.