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Two Koreas–One Road: The future of cooperation between North Korea, South Korea and Russia

Vladimir Putin has proposed multilateral economic projects which would involve both Korean states and Russia.

There is a real possibility that in spite of US attempts to resolve the Korean crisis though economic warfare and the threat of renewed military action, that a totally different approach is being taken about regional powers.

While it has received little media attention, the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok has been the first major international event outside of tense UN meetings where representatives from North and South Korea have been present in the same room in recent years.

Moreover, the meeting has seen the presence of South Korean President Moon Jae-in who held one to one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin who is hosting the event.

President Putin proposed joint Russian–South Korean–North Korean economic initiatives as the most positive and mutually beneficial manner to bring peace, reconciliation and increased prosperity to Korea and the wider region.

The proposals were met with the following positive response from President Moon,

“We have arranged to strengthen the base for implementing trilateral projects involving both Koreas and Russia. The projects aim at consolidating the Korean Peninsula and Russia’s Far East.

Both nations realise a free trade agreement between South Korea and the EAEU will boost cooperation not only between Moscow and Seoul but also between Russia and members of the union”.

Moon further stated that his country is in talks with Russia over purchasing liquefied natural gas from Russia as well as in discussions over further joint participation in oil exploration projects on Sakhalin island.

At the same time, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Economic Relations Kim Young-jae held discussions with Russia’s Far East Development Minister Aleksandr Galushka on the best ways to pursue economic cooperation.

Galushka stated,

“Our Korean partners seek to develop trade and economic relations. But we drew their attention to the fact that missile and nuclear activities suppress the opportunity to develop trade and economic ties, severely damage the trade and economic aspect of our relations.

We asked them to refrain from such actions in the future, as they bring to naught the efforts of the (Russia –North Korea) intergovernmental commission”.

The Russian approach to trade with North and South Korea, something which would almost certainly involve cooperation between Pyongyang and Seoul, appears to be a far more tenable approach to the present situation than America’s proposals which are based on threatening North Korea into compromise as opposed to the Russian plan which is essentially the classic carrot and stick model. Russia seeks to use the prospect of material gain to woo North Korea into a position of de-escalation.

In many ways, the most realistic first step would be the construction of a Russia-Korean Economic Corridor which would necessarily traverse both Korean states.

With Donald Trump stating his desire to pull out of the free trade agreement between the US and South Korea, a free trade agreement between South Korea and the Eurasian Economic Union, a free trading bloc founded by Russia, could be an obvious substitute. In this sense, Donald Trump has helped to push South Korea closer to Russia on the key issue of trade.

Such a reality would necessitate overland shipping routes between South Korea and Russia, in addition to existing maritime routes. Such a land route, whether rail based, truck based or both, would have to go through North Korea.

President Putin hinted at the presence of not only a transport corridor but also of trans-Korean gas pipelines emanating from Russia. He stated that Russia is currently considering projects involving Korea that would include, “piping Russian gas to Korea, and integration of the electric grids and railway systems of Russia, South and North Korea”.

He went on to say,

“Implementation of the initiatives will not only have economic benefits, but will also contribute to strengthening trust and stability in the Korean Peninsula”.

It is obvious that the Korean Peninsula’s problems cannot be solved only with sanctions and pressure. One should not give in to emotion and drive North Korea into a corner”.

While Russia continues to call on North Korea to pause its weapons tests, Vladimir Putin has conceded that trying to get North Korea to give up its weapons in total at this point in time, is an unrealistic goal due to the examples of Libya and Iraq which were destroyed by a US invasion, one that could not be defended because neither country had a WMD deterrent.

The Russian President stated,

“They (in North Korea) view the possession of atomic weapons and missile technology as their only means of protection. Do you think they’ll give it up now?

The build-up of some military atmosphere, of hysteria, is counter-productive, in my opinion. It will lead to nothing, because what is happening now, of course, is a provocation from North Korea. This is quite obvious. They are provoking the situation, but if they are doing it, they are not stupid people, believe me. So, they expect the corresponding reaction from (their) partners, and they achieve it”.

Putin then referred to the last time Pyongyang and Washington had direct talks. In 2005, both sides were on the verge of agreeing to a nuclear deal wherein North Korea would disarm if allowed to build nuclear power stations. Washington refused the offer and tensions continued to build thereafter.

Vladimir Putin clearly saw this as a lost opportunity and without naming the part responsible for the failure of the 2005 talks,clearly blamed the US for failing to capitalise on the 2005 would-be deal.

He said,

“We almost agreed on everything in 2005. Agreements were reached, according to which North Korea assumed the obligation to curtail the nuclear missile program, and all the other participants in this process promised to contribute to this process, and spoke of the need to restore normal, good relations between the North and the South, on the possibility of implementing tripartite Russia-North-South projects.

But then, unfortunately in my opinion, someone demanded from North Korea what it did not promise, and gradually this situation deteriorated to the current level”.

Russia’s plan presents the world with a genuine opportunity to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. By capitalising on Russia’s historic good will towards the Korean people and the new economic realities which will require deeper trans-Asian cooperation, there is a golden opportunity to turn a tense Korean peninsula into one where economic cooperation could alleviate decades of tension and distrust.

China would almost certainly welcome such measures, not least because of China’s close trading relationship with Russia and the stated desire of Beijing to foster peace on the Korean peninsula.

As for the United States, if the United States was truly concerned with de-escalating Korean tensions, Washington too would support the initiatives. In reality Washington may have an interest in prolonging the situation for two reasons.

First of all, tensions in the region allow the US to promote and justify the sale of further weapons to South Korea and Japan.

Secondly, the crisis allows America to attempt and justify a perpetual military presence in a region near to China which helps complete America’s long-term strategic goal of disrupting China’s One Belt–One Road on all sides. Even Steve Bannon admitted that this was the real reason for America’s ‘concerns’ over North Korea.

READ MORE: America uses North Korea as a transparent excuse for meddling in South Korea and provoking China

In spite of America’s peculiar and somewhat open economic/logistical war with China, there is little the US could do could prohibit a tripartite economic/trading/infrastructure partnership between Russia and the two Korean states.

Such a reality is not only preferable to a state where nuclear war constantly looms, but it is a genuinely postie opportunity for all parties involved.

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