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Ties with Russia are creaky

Posted October. 18, 2000 14:29,   


Seoul's 10-year-old ties with Moscow are not as good as they once were. Russia appears to be increasingly dissatisfied with Korea for unknown reasons. Summit talks and other high-level meetings between the two countries have been proposed but failed to come about for reasons hardly convincing. Many observers see these untoward developments as a question of money.

President Putin's visit:

A proposed visit by President Vladimir Putin here tops the list of the discords between the two nations. When Foreign Minister Lee Joung-Binn visited Moscow in June the Russian government promised his visit to Seoul within the year. Moscow made no mention of Putin's itinerary when Prime Minister Lee Han-Dong was visiting there last week, thus virtually throwing the proposed visit out of the question.

While Russia dilly-dallied on Putin's visit here, it was made public that North Korea's strongman Kim Jong-Il will go to Russia early next year. Putin's tour of three East Asian nations, China, North Korea and Japan, already rendered the omission of South Korea as more exceptional.

Other instances of Russian negligence:

That the post of South Korea desk chief in the Russian Foreign Ministry, the working-level official in charge of relations with Seoul, is left vacant for one year is another example of Russian negligence of South Korea. The failure of the Moscow government to name a successor to Amangeldi Imugebayev, the former Korea desk chief who died of illness over a year ago, seems to be deliberate.

A foreign service expert says that Korea might be ranked between 30th and 40th in the scale of Russian diplomacy. Although Russian as well as Korean officials deny successive frustration of visiting Korean officials in securing an appointment with the Russian president resulted from discontentment or indifference on the part of the host government, say analysts in Moscow.

Prime Minister Lee failed to meet Putin. In May Defense Minister Cho Seong-Tae also boasted that he would be the first foreign cabinet member to be received by Putin, and he also failed. In June Foreign Minister Lee tried to meet Putin only in vain. Vice Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon who went to Moscow as a special envoy of President Kim Dae-Jung to explain the results of inter-Korean rapprochement to Russian officials was not received by Foreign Minister Igori Ibanov, let alone Putin.

Russia is offended at its failure to sell submarines to South Korea. A retired naval officer here criticized the Seoul government for having rubbed Moscow the wrong way by not purchasing submarines. It has been reported that Russia wanted to export to South Korea three submarines worth a total of US$750 million and have 30 percent of Moscow¡¯s debt to Seoul canceled. Russia still is indebted US$1.7 billion to the Seoul government in economic cooperation funds given a decade ago.

The pressure on South Korea to buy submarines intensified since Putin took office. The military and defense industries are the power base of the president, and the Rubin Co., which designed and built the submarines, is located in St. Petersburg, which was the home of Putin. When Putin had telephone conversations with President Kim, he deliberately talked in the presence of Defense Minister Igori Sergeyev by way of exerting pressure.

Korea's proposed importation of Russian submarines seems no longer possible. Since the question of weapons procurement counts as a highly sensitive political decision, it cannot be reversed now. The Seoul government is yet to make a formal notification to that effect. Russian officials complained that Korean officials had decried the Russian products as nothing better than scrap iron.


These frictions between South Korea and Russia are hardly to be cleared in the near future because distrust of Seoul is deeply ingrained in the minds of some ranking Russian officials. A highly placed Russian official said this week that South Koreans make light to the potentials of Russia.

"Ten years ago when Seoul opened diplomatic ties with Moscow the order of importance in the mind of Koreans was Washington, Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing; but today it shifted to Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow," he observed with discontent.

Some in Korea have expressed misgivings about Moscow¡¯s swerve from a policy of equidistant diplomacy toward two the Koreas in favor of North Korea.

Kim Ki-Hyun kimkihy@donga.com