Seoul-Moscow rendezvous shows shifting strategic landscape

Seoul-Moscow rendezvous shows shifting strategic landscape

Moon Jae-in will visit Russia from Thursday to Saturday in the first state visit there by a sitting South Korean president since 1999. The landmark trip will see Moon watch the Korea-Mexico World Cup match on Saturday, but the real driver is Thursday’s meeting with Vladimir Putin to discuss the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula after the Singapore summit.

This first visit by any South Korean head of state to Russia for around two decades, in which Moon will also become the nation’s first-ever president to deliver a speech to the Russian State Duma, underlines the shifting geopolitical tectonic plates around North and South Korea since the rapprochement between the two nations this year. On Monday, the latest manifestation of this diplomatic warming came with the decision to form some combined sports teams to compete at August’s Asian Games. 

Following Donald Trump’s Singapore session with Kim Jong Un, other major powers with a stake in the question of the future of the Korean Peninsula, including Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, are jockeying for position as the region’s military and strategic landscapes are potentially recast around the world’s last Cold War-era frontier. 

One of the most spectacular features of this potentially historic period of change, at least to date, has been the remarkable pivot of key powers toward greater engagement with the Pyongyang regime, whilst also seeking to enhance ties with Seoul. On the former issue, this was shown most markedly with Trump last week in Singapore, but is also true of Xi and Putin, as all parties sense significant new political and economic opportunities opening up under future sanctions relief.

Here it is no coincidence that Xi recently invited Kim for two trips to Beijing — his first foreign tours since he assumed power in 2010 — after Trump first announced the Singapore summit in March. Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met Kim earlier this month in Pyongyang, has already invited the North Korean leader to visit Putin in Russia.

While historic change on Korean peninsula could be in the air as Moon visits Russia, significant risks remain.

Andrew Hammond

At the same time Kim has been feted by Washington, Beijing and Moscow, the three have also been clear to consolidate ties with Moon. In May, Moon met with Trump at the White House, while Xi also saw him that same month with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the first trilateral talks between the three nations since 2015.

Putin’s session with Moon is Russia’s latest attempt to enhance its own political and economic ties with Seoul. And it comes at a moment when Moon is promoting a “New Northern Policy” that, alongside peace talks with Kim, is a crucial foreign relations policy driver, under which his administration is seeking to improve its ties with key Eurasian neighbors.

As part of these discussions to strengthen bilateral cooperation, Moon and Putin will explore the potential that may come from the decision of Kim and Moon to link roads and railways along the western and eastern corridors of the Korean Peninsula. In the coming years, these roads and railways would be extended to China and Russia, opening up new opportunities into these important political and economic frontiers. 

Moon’s trip is thus only the latest sign of the geopolitical flux in the region this year, with hopes rising that North Korea is committed to a reform pathway. While that is by no means certain, given the uncertainty over the ambiguous pledge to “denuclearize” in the Singapore agreement last week, the turnaround in spiraling tensions on the peninsula since late 2017 has nonetheless been as potentially important as it was unexpected. 

Yet, while there are currently very positive atmospherics around the various diplomatic dialogues with Kim, all sides know there are significant negative risks as well as opportunities in play. These include the possibility of tensions rising again on the peninsula in 2018 or beyond if the US-Koreas peace dialogue breaks down. 

While Trump currently appears keen to have a sustained strategic dialogue with Kim, both of these two leaders’ personal and political volatility cannot be underestimated. And if Kim ultimately reneges on any key pledges in the US president’s eyes, the political pressure will again be on Trump to ratchet up his position against Pyongyang, despite the warm words of recent weeks. 

Trump remains under political pressure domestically on this issue, having drawn a “red line” over Pyongyang having nuclear weapons capable of striking the US homeland. And here he is well aware from last year’s missile tests that Kim’s regime is now close to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US mainland. 

Taken overall, Moon’s trip and the wider grand diplomacy on the peninsula involving Washington, Beijing and Moscow following the Singapore summit underlines that the geopolitical tectonic plates are speeding up in the Korean Peninsula. However, while historic change could be in the air, significant risks remain and, if the North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage, the warming of relationships under way could yet go into reverse.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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