President Park Geun-hye should go to Russia in May with several goals in mind, not the unitary goal of meeting the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un or improving inter-Korean relations in a significant way. As a wartime ally of the United States, the Soviets had agreed to fight in the Pacific theatre against Japan, the former colonizer of the Korean peninsula. True, Stalin’s regime was partly responsible for the division of the peninsula assisting Kim Il-sung in the Korean War. But since South Korea-Russian normalization of relations in 1990 the relationship evolved from residual distrust and attempts by the Seoul to drive a wedge between Moscow and Pyongyang to one of economic and diplomatic cooperation.
By 2009, South Korea became Russia’s third largest economic partner in Asia, and in 2010, South Korea outranked Japan and the United States as a favored tourist destination of Russians. Despite international sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and military adventurism in Ukraine and Washington’s desire for a “united front” against Moscow, South Korea-Russia relations should be maintained and strengthened for Seoul’s own national interest.
After all, Russia is a member of the six-party talks and will be involved in any negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. And even if there may not be real gain in inter-Korean relations by attending the international gathering, there may be costs that Seoul would not want to incur.
Moscow will certainly use the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany to showcase the country and its leader, Vladmir Putin, as great and heroic.
The American magazine The New Republic reported on the meaning of the annual celebration for average Russians and for President Putin, who rehabilitated Victory Day as a great nationalist holiday: “Putin Is Using WWII for Propaganda Because It’s the Best Memory That Russia Has” (April 2014).
It’s possible that Russia’s alliance with Western powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom may get overshadowed by the glorification of Soviet prowess and sacrifice, but all military celebrations over-dramatize the glory and underplay or cover up assistance by others, a country’s own mistakes, and the inevitable chaos of war.
In truth, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union played an indispensable role in defeating the Nazis and releasing many parts of Europe from their stranglehold. Soviets sacrificed between 25-30 million lives. Russia, with the largest population among the Soviet republics, lost 13,950,000 people, military and civilian, followed by Ukraine ( the second largest population at the time), with 6,850,000 dead. (Ironically, both shed the most blood back then for a common cause although now they have turned their weapons against each other.) Russians call World War II the Great Patriotic War, and just about every Russian family experienced the hardships and losses in numerous ways.
In the 1930s and 40s, the greatest threat to peace and human dignity was posed by Nazi Germany. It systematically tortured and murdered anyone it deemed “undesirable” or a threat to the regime. In that sense, President Park can travel to Moscow with the principle of human equality and dignity as universal guiding principles to remind us that millions around the world, including people north of the 38th parallel, live under political tyranny.
South Korea also needs to maintain and improve its relations with Russia prudently. Even though current tensions and sanctions over Russia’s military and territorial expansionism make it an awkward time to eagerly cooperate with Russia, a South Korean presidential presence will be noticed and noted by Russian diplomats and business elites. Attendance is a way to bank on the future even if direct deposit of goods and funds cannot easily be invested at the moment for geopolitical reasons.
In this context, the ROK government worries too much about how the United States will regard a visit to Moscow by Park. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is strong, and in addition to common bilateral interests, each country has its own interests to pursue. For South Korea, President Park’s presence in Moscow will provide an important venue to exchange views with other world leaders, strengthen its friendship with China and both eastern and western Europe in particular. There is no way to know how the U.S.-Russia relationship will develop in the coming months, and Seoul should not hold itself in suspension for an outcome that makes Washington happy.
Regarding North Korea and inter-Korean relations, if Kim Jong-un shows up in Moscow, it’s a convenient third country venue where a meeting between the leaders of the North and South can be arranged. Kim Jung-un is more likely to conduct himself better in a foreign place with many people around, where he cannot control everything, than in his home turf, where he controls so much. And even if he were to be well-received by Russians, he certainly will get the cold shoulder from other leaders in attendance.
If President Park does not go to Moscow, Kim Jong-un might become one of the featured guests (simply out of novelty), at least in terms of media attention. He may make grand claims to represent the Korean people and use the opportunity to make new friends. This would not benefit Seoul, especially at a time when Pyongyang and Moscow are increasing economic ties and planning joint military exercises.
Bottom line, President Park will have to decide about Moscow regardless of what Pyongyang does or does not do. Even though Kim has agreed to attend the Moscow event in May, there is a good chance he might change his mind. And if President Park does go, the Blue House should send clear signals that there are broader political, economic, and diplomatic relations for her trip so that the Korean critics in the right and left do not fixate only on inter-Korean relations. Seoul should take opportunities on the global stage to engage in “big politics” with long-term vision.