Yongusil 96: Russia, South Korea and the New Northern Policy

By | July 01, 2019 | No Comments

Former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and his then-South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak in 2010. Nearly a decade after the ROK-Russia strategic partnership launched under these two presidents, Moscow and Seoul have made mixed progress in advancing their ties. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the decade since Russia and South Korea designated their relationship a “strategic partnership” in 2008, Moscow and Seoul have made several practical attempts to strengthen ties, particularly in the field of economics. Politically speaking, there is little within the bilateral relationship that is apt to frustrate efforts to get closer: there are no historic grievances or territorial disputes between the two, and ties between the Russian Federation and Republic of Korea have survived thorny security difficulties such as the THAAD controversy without undue difficulty.

At the outset of his tenure, President Moon Jae-in declared Seoul’s relationship with the Kremlin a priority. One of his first acts in office was to send Song Young-gil to on a brief visit to Russia as a special presidential envoy to the Kremlin in May 2017, before nominating veteran lawmaker Woo Yoon-keun to take up the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in September of that year. Within four months of taking office, Moon unveiled his “New Northern Policy (신북방정책)” at the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The ostensible purpose of the New Northern Policy is to connect the Republic of Korea economically to the Eurasian landmass. To do so, Seoul’s vision relies on the so-called “nine bridges” of cooperation between the ROK and the Russian Federation.

The “nine bridges” of cooperation entail bilateral cooperation in fields such as energy, logistics and infrastructure, and trade in sectors like agriculture and fishing. Moon declared that the “nine bridges” should start with short-term projects, but with the aim of promoting long-term trust between the two sides. In Seoul’s view, in order to fully realize the goal of the “nine bridges”, which center upon the Russian Far East, the North Korean nuclear question must be solved in a mutually-agreeable manner. In February 2019, ROK finance minister Hong Nam-ki and Russian presidential envoy for the Russian Far East Yury Trutnev signed an action plan for proposed cooperation.  

For Seoul to have a special program dedicated to solidifying economic ties with Russia is not unique. Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017, had her “Eurasian Initiative”, which entailed integrating the ROK with energy and infrastructure networks across the wider Eurasian landmass, as well as the eventual elimination of trade barriers. Yet, just as the Eurasian Initiative” failed to take off, the New Northern Policy also faces barriers to success, albeit not necessarily because of shortcomings in bilateral relations. Rather, the main stumbling blocks to the New Northern Policy’s success, according to this new paper by Anthony Rinna, “Moscow’s ‘Turn to the East’ and Challenges to Russia-South Korea Economic Collaboration under the New Northern Policy,” are a combination of Northeast Asian sub-regional politics and issues concerning economic conditions in the Russian Far East.            

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