The message from the two-day Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) conference, which concluded in Vladivostok on Thursday, is that Russia’s “pivot to Asia” in recent years, in the downstream of Western sanctions against it, has become a core vector of its foreign policies.
The EEF began modestly in 2015 with the agenda of showcasing the “new reality” of a role for the Russian Far East in the economic integration of the Asia-Pacific region. But this year’s EEF waded into the critical regional security issue of North Korea.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed, inter alia, that a North Korean delegation would attend the EEF event. He said, “As I understand, the DPRK’s delegation to the EEF consists of representatives of the economic bloc. We (Russia) also have representatives of our economic ministries and departments here. So I think, meetings within the profile structures of the two countries will take place.”
This comes at a time when administration of US President Donald Trump is stepping up its rhetoric and demanding more sanctions against North Korea. Curiously, South Korean President Moon Jae-In also attended the EEF conference, taking time off to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on Wednesday.
Moon may well be quietly admiring of Putin for saying things upfront about North Korea which he is unable to do himself. When talking to the media in Xiamen on Tuesday following the BRICS summit, Putin had done some plain speaking regarding North Korea. Notably, he said:
“Everyone remembers well what happened to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Hussein abandoned the production of weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless… Saddam Hussein himself and his family were killed… Even children died back then. His grandson, I believe, was shot to death. The country was destroyed… North Koreans are also aware of it and remember it. Do you think that following the adoption of some sanctions, North Korea will abandon its course on creating weapons of mass destruction? “Certainly, the North Koreans will not forget it. Sanctions of any kind are useless and ineffective in this case. As I said to one of my colleagues yesterday, they will eat grass, but they will not abandon this program unless they feel safe.”
After meeting Moon, Putin again urged that dialogue is the only way out of the crisis. Putin is well aware that Moon has a pivotal role in preventing US President Donald Trump from taking military risks, and he cannot be unaware that some fractures have appeared lately in the US-South Korea alliance. Significantly, Moon said at his press conference with Putin on Wednesday:
“Mr. President and I have also agreed to build up the basis for the implementation of trilateral projects with participation of the two Koreas and Russia, which will connect the Korean Peninsula and the Russian Far East… We have decided to give priority to the projects that can be implemented in the near future, primarily in the Far East. The development of the Far East will promote the prosperity of our two countries and will also help change North Korea and create the basis for the implementation of the trilateral agreements. We will be working hard on this.”
To jog memories, Moscow has, in the past, mooted certain infrastructural projects involving North Korea that might hold the potential to stabilize the region: an extension of the Trans-Siberian railway system into South Korea via North Korea; a gas pipeline connecting South and North Korea with the vast Russian oil and gas fields in the Far East; and transmission lines to take surplus electricity from the Russian Far East to the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean companies are involved in Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 energy projects and are currently discussing with Russia the delivery of liquefied natural gas. South Korean shipyards are hoping to build 15 tankers to transport gas from the Yamal LNG plant in the Russian Far East.
Putin stated at the press conference with Moon that “Russia is still willing to implement trilateral projects with the participation of North Korea.” He flagged the above three projects specifically and added, “The implementation of these initiatives will be not only economically beneficial, but will also help build up trust and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
The big question is whether there was some form of contact between the delegations of North and South Korea on the sidelines of the EEF conference in Vladivostok. Russia, the host country, is uniquely placed to play the role of facilitator.
At any rate, Moscow is willing to undertake a mediatory role between the two Koreas, which no other world capital today can perform. It can talk to Pyongyang to raise its comfort level and integrate North Korea in regional cooperation, while also easing South Korea’s existential angst. Moscow’s trump card is its privileged communication channels to Pyongyang and its common interests with Seoul (and Beijing, and Tokyo) in avoiding a catastrophic war.
In the given situation, Russian diplomacy becomes optimal. While bringing about peace, it also holds the potential to create wealth and shared prosperity, which provides the bedrock for regional stability and helps the development of the Russian Far East. Incidentally, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang, the point person for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also attended the EEF meet.
Putin arrived in Vladivostok from China where he held detailed discussions with President Xi Jinping on Monday regarding the situation on the Korean Peninsula. A high degree of Sino-Russian coordination on North Korea is already evident.
Any Russian peace initiative on North Korea will be a reflection on the failure of leadership in Washington. The Trump administration is unlikely to view such a scenario with equanimity, given its far-reaching implications for the US-led system of alliances in the Far East.