Posted September. 30, 2008 08:29,
President Lee Myung-bak in summit talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday agreed to expand cooperation not only in economy, but also diplomacy and security by upgrading bilateral relations to a strategic partnership. Specifically, the two leaders agreed to hold strategic dialogue between deputy foreign ministers. South Korea also decided to import 7.5 million tons of Russian natural gas every year. The summit was also an opportunity to upgrade bilateral relations, which celebrate their 18th anniversary today.
By visiting Moscow, Lee concluded the first round of his tour of four major powers - the United States, Japan, China and Russia. As a result, the South Korea-U.S. alliance has gained more strength than under the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration. Cooperation between South Korea and China has substantially expanded to include even the plight of North Korean defectors in the summit agenda. Since Russia can be as influential to North Korea as China, Seouls partnership with Moscow will contribute to resolving Pyongyangs nuclear ambition. Promoting bilateral relations is also critical at a time when rumors of North Korea leader Kim Jong Ils ill health are prevalent and the process of the Norths nuclear dismantlement has hit the wall.
Unfortunately, pending issues between Seoul and Moscow cannot be resolved instantly by a single presidential visit. The progress in bilateral relations pales to that of South Korea-China relations, which were established two years after Seoul formed ties with Moscow. For example, South Korean-Russian trade reached 15 billion U.S. dollars last year, only a tenth of that of South Korea and China (145 billion dollars). Certain Seoul diplomats went as far as saying South Koreas relations with Russia are at their worst point since official ties were formed in 1992, because Seoul places the least weight on relations with Moscow among the four powers. In June, four South Korean diplomats were expelled from Russia. Moscow is also reportedly unsatisfied with how Seoul reacted to Russias transition of power.
Therefore, Lee and Medvedev should use their summit talks to better clear misunderstanding and forge a true partnership. When dealing with Russia, Lee must consider both Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the de facto leader.
At a time when countries are fiercely competing to secure energy supplies, strengthening diplomacy with Moscow is a matter of course, not choice, for Seoul. Russias agreement to build gas pipelines going through North Korea is a positive outcome of the summit, though it requires Norths cooperation. Expectations are also high for other projects agreed on by the two leaders, such as joint development of Siberia and Russian Far East and connecting the Trans-Korean Railway with the Trans-Siberian Railway.