Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Russia and the Return of Geopolitics in Korea

In his 2014 Foreign Affairs article "The Return of Geopolitics", Walter Russell Mead asserted that whereas the US has been concerned with ideas of "global governance" since the end of the Cold War, powers such as China, Iran and Russia remain focused on traditional questions of territory and power. 

The term "geopolitics" is frequently used in conjunction with Russia's foreign policy. It is, however, often limited to the context of Russian activities in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, much of Russia's current foreign policy is driven by a desire to re-assert influence in countries and regions that were formerly under Soviet control.

Despite not having been a part of the former Soviet empire, the Korean Peninsula offers a unique chance to glean the dichotomy between the US's supposed concentration of "global governance" and the Russian preoccupation with the issue of territory. Much of the international focus on the DPRK has been based on stemming North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The primary framework through which the international community has worked to achieve this is through international bodies such as the United Nations, buttressed by international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nevertheless, Russia's geopolitical interests have a long history in Korea. Those interests, it seems, are making a comeback. Russia, however, is forced to contend with a divided Korea that makes the pursuit of its geopolitical designs more difficult.

The establishment of a Korean state that is friendly toward Russia, but which is not particularly aligned with one state, has constituted a basic Russian policy toward Korea since the end of the 19th century. The historic roots of Russia's ambitions on the Korean Peninsula date from approximately 1860, during the reign of Aleksandr II. Russian designs for Korea entered a period of abeyance during the Japanese occupation of Korea. After the end of the Second World War, however, the USSR revived its Korea policy based on three fronts: advancing the Soviet Union's national security, increasing the scope of the communist camp, and keeping Russia in the realm of great power politics.

Following the "hot" phase of the Cold War, which included a rupture in Sino-Soviet relations, the balance between China, the United States and the USSR became more-or-less balanced. Nevertheless, the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea following the 1965 normalization agreement between Seoul and Tokyo led to another major shift in the USSR's geopolitical position in Northeast Asia. While the US's alliance system in Asia was based on a series of bilateral agreements between Washington and other individual states, rather than a collective security system such as NATO, Japan-South Korea normalization led to the formation of a Japan-South Korea-US network. In Asia, Russia was unable to form a network of alliances or collective security similar to the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. As a result, in order to securitize its Far Eastern regions, in 1980 Russia embarked on a program of tripling its direct investment in the Russian Far East's military position, compared with defense spending in the Far East in 1978. Nevertheless, the USSR was unable to undertake such a program, as at this time the first cracks in the Soviet socio-economic system began to appear [1].

Upon assuming leadership of the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to use North Korea as a sort of lightning rod to expand the Soviet Union's influence in East Asia more broadly. In addition to the narrower imperatives of East Asia, Gorbachev's policy of outreach to North Korea was also in part based on his attempts at shoring up cooperation with the broader global communist bloc, including those countries that had kept their distance from the USSR. During the final days of the Soviet era, however, a reform-minded Gorbachev viewed South Korea, having recently experienced a massive economic transformation in the so-called "Miracle on the Han", as a valuable partner for the USSR. In particular, Gorbachev viewed South Korea as a potential source of investment. Yet in the chaotic aftermath of the USSR's collapse, Russian leaders (especially conservative politicians) became increasingly disappointed with the fact that ROK-Russia ties didn't provide the material benefits as had previously been hoped. Boris Yeltsin, therefore, began to move Russia back to a more equidistant position between North and South Korea.  

Moscow's policy of maintaining balanced relations with both Koreas has continued under the Putin government. Russia's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with North and South Korea, however, could end up backfiring, as happened with the USSR's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970's. With this in mind, Russia ultimately hopes for a reunified peninsula. Moscow, however, approaches unification with a mindset of cautious optimism.

According to a report published by the Russian committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), two of Russia's main interests insofar as Korean crisis management is concerned, is for Korean unification to happen gradually, rather than suddenly, and for Korea not necessary to fall under the geopolitical auspices of Russia, but rather for Korea not to come under the geopolitical fold of one single country.

Ideally, unification would occur peaceably. Russia, however, remains wary of the possibility of a large-scaled armed confrontation. By extension, Russia also fears that the aftermath of armed conflict would produce a unified Korean Peninsula with US troops directly on its borders. This makes Russia's geopolitical situation in East Asia not unlike Russia's circumstances in Europe, where the positioning of large-scale military powers increases the possibility of confrontation. In contrast, perhaps the most critical difference between Russia's geopolitical interests toward the Korean Peninsula and other regions on the Russian periphery is that whereas in other areas Russia attempts to create a network of pro-Moscow states on its borders, but as far as Korea is concerned, the most pressing issue for Russia is not creating a buffer state, but rather creating investment opportunities for its Far Eastern regions.

As Russia continues its so-called "turn to the East," the Korean Peninsula will likely hold an increasingly important position in Russia's geopolitical designs. At present, Russia is limited in its ability to exercise geopolitical influence over Korea. The peninsula remains divided, with the northern and Southern halves generally aligned with China and the US, respectively. Should the overall situation in Korea change in any notable way, however, Russia, based on its long-standing interests, will be desirous to take advantage of any major shifts in North and/or South Korea's political circumstances. By striving for closer ties with both North and South Korea, Russia seeks to be primed to, at the very least, not be left out in the cold in any ensuing geopolitical scramble for influence in a reunified Korea.   

[1] А. Б Волынчук "Россия в Северо-Восточной Азии: вектор геополитических интересов"

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