Decrypting the Russia–South Korea relationship

Published : 14 Jun 2019 06:37 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:58 PM

Observing South Korea–Russia relations offers insights into how the ongoing security standoff with Pyongyang affects Russia’s interests within Northeast Asia. A core feature at present of Moscow–Seoul ties is the New Northern Policy, a South Korean plan for economic integration that Russia is receptive of.

Economic cooperation between Russia and South Korea under the New Northern Policy occurs in the context of the Russia–South Korea strategic partnership. The strategic partnership, officially implemented in 2008, has a mixed record of success. Economic cooperation between the two countries, despite some recent positive developments, remains relatively limited. At the same time, the relationship has proven its strength in light of issues such as the 2017 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile crisis.

Seoul’s New Northern Policy has two overarching goals — to expand economic cooperation in various fields between South Korea and several states across Eurasia, particularly Russia, and to mitigate military tensions on the Korean Peninsula by means of economic cooperation. The basis of economic collaboration under the policy is the concept of ‘nine bridges’, which comprises cooperation between South Korea and Russia in fields such as agriculture, energy, fisheries and infrastructure. The latter area of cooperation includes developing territorial infrastructure, namely railroads, as well as deepening cooperation in shipping and the development of Russian maritime ports.

Moscow and Seoul are already seeing the fruits of strengthened commercial relations. Trade between the two was nearly 29 per cent higher in 2018 than it had been the previous year. From Seoul’s end, the New Northern Policy’s vision of connecting South Korea with the wider Eurasian landmass will potentially foster an environment where the profitability of trade will outweigh the prospects of armed conflict. Recent research shows a correlation between trade integration and a reduction in the likelihood of armed conflict.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s conciliatory approach to North Korea is creating opportunities for Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul to lay a foundation for trilateral economic cooperation. North Korean Minister of External Economic Relations Kim Yong-jae and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon were present at the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum.

The New Northern Policy can also potentially benefit Russia’s economic security. The Russian national security strategy mentions economic issues dozens of times. Specific to the Russian Far East, which is arguably the crux of Russia–South Korea economic ties, Moscow’s vision for its Asia Pacific territories is based on the concept of ‘security by means of development’. The Kremlin hopes to transform the Russian Far East into an infrastructure and technology hub of the Asia Pacific. The Russian government considers technological cooperation with South Korea to be crucial to advancing its own economic interests.

The increase in trade between South Korea and

 Russia attests to the earnestness with which the 

Kremlin and the Blue House approach their 

bilateral relationship. Yet the New Northern

 Policy’s vision is long-term in nature. The New 

Northern Policy itself may not continue past the 

Moon administration, as with former South

 Korean president Park Geun-hye’s ‘Eurasian


In spite of the dual economic and security benefits the New Northern Policy can potentially yield, Seoul’s vision for economic collaboration with Moscow runs up against two major issues — sanctions and economic conditions in the Russian Far East.

North Korean security provocations have led to an increasingly stringent sanctions regime against Pyongyang. Sanctions — imposed both at the UN Security Council as well as unilaterally from individual states — are undermining Russia’s ability to cooperate economically with North Korea. This will frustrate prospects for trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul. Additional sanctions placed specifically against Pyongyang could even undermine Moscow’s economic ties with Seoul. Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned the difficulties posed by the sanctions to Russia–South Korea cooperation to Moon in December 2018.

Conditions within the Russian Far East also present challenges to the success of the New Northern Policy. One example is the unsatisfactory state of connectivity between ports and the interior of the country. This is a major obstacle to South Korean investment in Russia. The state of Russian infrastructure poses challenges to the New Northern Policy’s vision of using Russian territory as a transit route to ship goods to other markets in Eurasia.

South Korea and Russia both stand to benefit from the success of the New Northern Policy, in terms of both economic and security dividends. Russia–South Korea relations have developed steadily over the past 10 years and the New Northern Policy focuses on the economic sectors where collaboration between Moscow and Seoul are most beneficial.

The increase in trade between South Korea and Russia attests to the earnestness with which the Kremlin and the Blue House approach their bilateral relationship. Yet the New Northern Policy’s vision is long-term in nature. The New Northern Policy itself may not continue past the Moon administration, as with former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s ‘Eurasian Initiative’. But even in that case, the South Korean government — regardless of ideological leanings — does perceive benefits to be had from economic collaboration with Russia. Keeping the vision alive and maintaining the long-term sustainability of policy aimed at closer economic integration with Russia will require continued and committed effort among all parties.

Anthony V Rinna is a Senior Editor and specialist on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group.