Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula and Great Power Relations in Northeast Asia

Russia's Role on the Korean Peninsula and Great Power Relations in Northeast Asia

by Joseph P. Ferguson
June 1, 2003

Moscow will likely continue to support an active U.S. regional role, including a U.S. military presence in Korea and Japan, especially as China’s economic and political clout in East Asia continues to grow. Moreover, if Russia’s economic recovery can continue, and if it can leverage this resurgence into a regional economic presence, Moscow may serve as a counterbalance to the growing, more assertive Chinese presence in the region.

Russian–Korean relations are perhaps among the least explored and understood of the major diplomatic relationships in Northeast Asia. Although it may seem that Russia’s role on the Korean Peninsula has little to do with the U.S.–ROK alliance, in the last few years Moscow has played a more active role in the policies of both the Republic of Korea (the ROK, or South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK, or North Korea). The Russian government hopes to create a place for itself in any major security initiative concerning the Korean Peninsula in order to regain a diplomatic foothold in Northeast Asia.

An active Russian diplomatic strategy on the Korean Peninsula has only begun to reemerge over the past several years under President Vladimir Putin. The Soviet Union, of course, was a major supporter of the DPRK for several decades, and it was only in the late– 1980s that Moscow ceased to be the primary patron–state for Pyongyang. It was at this time that Moscow began courting Seoul in hopes of attracting ROK investment to the beleaguered Russian Far East. In the late 1990s there was a brief hiatus in Russian–ROK relations due to the economic crises in both nations and a spy scandal that involved diplomats of both countries. Today Moscow has decided to engage both Pyongyang and Seoul, whereas in the past Moscow would pursue ties with either one or the other. Although Russia has been pushed to the margins of great power politics in Northeast Asia for the past decade, the Kremlin has made great efforts over the past few years to develop an effective diplomatic strategy in the region. Such a policy would maximize Moscow’s leverage and achieve its primary goal of assuring regional stability so that the Russian Far East could develop economically with a minimum of interruptions. In this regard, a U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula predicated on regional deterrence supports Russian interests.

From the early 1950s to the late 1980s, Soviet activity on the Korean Peninsula posed a major threat to the United States and South Korea. Today, however, the United States may have the luxury of counting on Russian support on the peninsula. Moscow hopes to serve as a positive influence on Pyongyang and is working to keep the nations of Northeast Asia diplomatically (as opposed to militarily) engaged on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, and most importantly for…