I wrote a quick piece for Newsweek Korea this week on Vladimir Putin’s trip to South Korea. Find the Korean web version here. Below is the translation.
In brief, I argue that a relationship with Russia is good for South Korea. Because SK is both relatively small and encircled, its foreign policy is dominated by just a few states. The problem is that SK can’t/won’t reach out to NK or Japan, so it is basically stuck between the US and China. So pulling in the Russians is a nice way to get SK some room to maneuver in its tight neighborhood. That is sure to annoy the Americans, but if you’re a S Korean, it’s a wise choice. That is the real value of the trip for SK, while for Russia, it bolsters its fading Asian relevance. Also, while I think President Park has really blown it over Japan, this was a smart choice against the Chinese and the Americans – maybe the best thing she’s done on foreign policy yet.
If it seems like I’m emphasizing geopolitics over economics, that’s because I don’t buy this ‘New Silk Road’ bit – where SK and Russian traffic would move through a guaranteed rail/road corridor in NK – for one minute. Does anyone really believe NK will respect transit rights, giving up lucrative shake-down opportunities on the movement of fuel, goods, tourists, and so on? No way. Look at how Pyongyang uses Kaesong for whatever blackmail/hostage-taking purposes it has in mind. NK is a such a black hole for international norms, that SK and Russia might as well connect by a ‘chunnel’ before relying on NK respect for transit rights.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Seoul this week is an excellent opportunity for South Korea to widen its diplomatic range of partners and carve out greater geopolitical options in the tight northeast Asian neighborhood. South Korea is a middle power surrounded by three great powers plus the world’s most frightening dictatorship. This very tough geopolitical position has often resulted in mistreatment by its neighbors. The age-old problem of Korean grand strategy is to vouchsafe its sovereignty against its larger neighbors and prevent domination. So improved relations with one of those neighbors, Russia, helps Seoul pushback on others, to create space for itself. This is President Park Geun-Hye’s most clever, underappreciated diplomatic move so far.
South Korea’s current strategy to insure national autonomy is the US alliance. The American superpower clearly strengthens Korea’s local independence. But of course, the US alliance comes with certain expectations that Koreans occasionally resent, such as participation in George Bush’s war on terror or the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, or US pressure on Korea for a rapprochement with Japan. The media debate of the last month clearly demonstrates that Korea does not wish to be ‘chain-ganged’ into American-Japanese containment of China. Nor do Koreans want to compromise with Japan, despite heavy US pressure in that direction. Unfortunately, a very tight Korean association with the US raises Seoul’s vulnerability to these American pressures. Korean soldiers went to Iraq, for example, despite the enormous unpopularity of that war, because the Blue House knew how dependent Korean security is on the US. Hence if Korea can open its range of major diplomatic partners beyond the United States, it may gain some leverage against the US and blunt American pressure regarding Japan and China.
Here Russia is very useful, because Korea’s regional choices are very limited. Korea has poor relations with Japan and North Korea; indeed much of Korean diplomacy aims at isolating these two states, not conciliating them. That leaves China, the US, and Russia. Today, Korea is arguably over-dependent on the US, as suggested by periodic outbursts of Korean anti-Americanism. Certainly many US allies have found America overbearing and politically intrusive. So simultaneously dealing with China, America, and Russia serves Korea sovereignty by balancing all three against each other. Call it the Korean version of ‘triangular diplomacy’ (a term from the Richard Nixon presidency to describe the awkward US semi-alliance with China against the USSR).
An irony of this balancing strategy is that its greatest Korean practitioner to date was Kim Il Sung. Despite the extraordinary totalitarian cruelty of his rule, Kim brilliantly played Korea’s tough neighborhood to achieve surprising autonomy for the small, economically backward DPRK. Perhaps most famously, Kim managed to steer both China and the USSR into supporting his unification war. Kim cleverly played Stalin and Mao against each other, telling each if they did not support him, he would then go to the other. Stalin and Mao, anxious to pull North Korea into their separate camps, both then supported the war, even though actually neither wished to. This was probably the greatest feat of diplomacy in North Korean history. And throughout the Cold War, Kim managed to avoid tilting too much toward China or the USSR, constantly playing them against each other, both to maintain the DPRK’s sovereignty and extract concessions.
South Korea, by contrast, did not choose to duck-and-weave like this. Instead, it threw in its lot with the Americans, resulting in repeated claims over the years that Seoul is too subservient to Washington. This was likely still a wise choice: the US has been the wealthiest and most powerful state on the planet since WWII, and it helped midwife South Korea’s spectacular growth. Nevertheless, in my experience, most Koreans would like a little more distance from the Americans, and outreach to the Russians is great way to get that.
There are of course limits. Outreach to Russia – and China – both suffer from the constraints of clashing political values. In other words, South Korea is a liberal democracy; Russia and China are not. That makes it hard for South Korea to engage too deeply. South Korean younger voters particularly are strongly wedded to liberal and democratic political values, as evidenced by their large vote against Park Geun-Hye as the ‘dictator’s daughter’ last year. As these youth age and fill Korea’s political institutions, it will become harder and harder for South Korea to work easily with authoritarian states. Domestic South Korean resistance will grow, much as already we see Western democratic states cooperating well with each other, but in frequent tension with non-democracies in the Middle East for example.
So it is highly unlikely that South Korea would ever ally with Russia or China. Democracies are just too distrustful of authoritarian regimes. They may work with them – as South Korea works with China on limiting North Korean misbehavior – but genuinely deep, friendly relations between democracies and non-democracies are rare. It is indicative that the big breakthrough of the Park-Putin summit was simply a 60-day visa-free travel permit. Most democracies have 90-day visa-free deals with each other as a matter of course.
In short, outreach to Russia is a smart, if limited, move. It helps South Korea maneuver in tight regional space. It tells the Americans that Korea has non-American options – not great options, but at least something. It tells the Chinese that Korea will not roll over for Chinese domination of the region (likely a Russian goal as well). It pressures Japan on the island dispute issue (Russia has a similar quarrel with Japan). And it continues to isolate North Korea. That’s pretty great diplomacy.”