Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 46

Despite this obvious emphasis on arms sales, it remains unclear precisely what was agreed upon in this area during Putin’s visit to Seoul. The two sides did sign a memorandum of intentions on January 28, the substance of which, according to one Russian source, remains classified. The memorandum appears, however, to accord with the terms of a deal set out before Putin’s arrival in Seoul. In the run up to Putin’s visit, both Russian and South Korean officials spoke of an arms package that might total as much as US$700 million (some sources pegged it at US$500 million), with about half that amount to be deducted from Russia’s outstanding US$1.8 billion debt and the remainder to be paid for by Seoul in cash. South Korea was said to be considering the purchase of Russian transport aircraft, trainers for cadets, hovercrafts, transport helicopters and refueling aircraft. At least one Russian source suggested that this was all a smokescreen, however, and that Seoul was in fact most interested in pursuing the purchase of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system and, possibly, a license to produce the missiles in South Korea. News sources also noted Russia’s participation in a competition for two major South Korean defense contracts: a US$4 billion project to procure next-generation fighters and a US$1.8 billion program to build new attack helicopters (Kommersant, February 7; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 28; Vremya Novostei, Izvestia, March 1).

Whether South Korean defense officials really want the Russian military hardware is an open question. Seoul has over the past decade purchased an estimated US$500 million worth of Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and light anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow, but those sales too were aimed in large part at helping Russia to repay its debt. Russian naval officials, meanwhile, appeared to be left bitterly disappointed last October when South Korea decided to forego the purchase of three Russian Kilo class diesel submarines. That deal, estimated at US$1.1 billion, would also have served as partial repayment for Russia’s debt. The South Korean Defense Ministry reportedly nixed the deal on the grounds that the Russian subs were not up to world standards and that it might be difficult down the road to get spare parts for them (see the Monitor, October 31, 2000).

There were similar intimations in the lead up to Putin’s visit. According to one South Korean source, military leaders in South Korea not only remained unenthusiastic about weapons purchases from Moscow, but suggested that the two sides might not be able to work out a deal in this area at all. They sighted several reasons why Russian hardware might make no sense for South Korea, most notably the fact that Russian weaponry is often incompatible with the American systems used primarily by the South Korea armed forces and is therefore difficult to integrate. As it is, South Korean defense officials are now reportedly planning to visit Russia in April or May for on-site inspections of Russian equipment which might be involved in a future arms deal. Inspections of this sort led to termination of the diesel submarine contact, and could have the same impact on the current, tentative Russian-South Korean arms deal (Korea Times, February 26; Korea Herald, February 28).

During Putin and Kim Dae-jung’s summit talks last week, the South Korean president appeared to embrace Russian criticism of U.S. missile defense plans, at least in part, as an exchange for a Russian commitment to exert influence on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and make him more amenable to Seoul’s reconciliation initiative. Given the primacy that South Korea’s Kim has attached to his so-called “sunshine policy,” it is possible that the debt-for-arms was made on the basis of similar considerations. Kim is due in Washington this week for crucial talks with U.S. President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials, however, and those talks could have an impact on the South Korean president’s calculus. More important, perhaps, Putin is himself scheduled to hold talks with Kim Jong-il in Russia this April. Continuation of the current, budding rapprochement between Seoul and Moscow could depend on Putin’s success in those talks–certainly no sure thing–as could the future of the South Korean-Russian arms-for-debt deal.