Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 160

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev is scheduled to travel to South Korea later this week, where he will hold talks from September 2-4 with President Kim Dae-jung and other top South Korean officials. Sergeev will join a large Russian military delegation already in South Korea on a twelve-day official visit. The Russian side plainly hopes that the high-profile contacts will boost military-to-military ties between the two countries. At least equally important, Russian officials are hoping to promote a series of possible arms deals which would see South Korea purchase Russian military hardware in partial repayment for Moscow’s US$1.8 billion debt to Seoul.

Asian security matters are also on the agenda. Sergeev will reportedly raise Russia’s concerns over a proposed U.S.-Japanese plan to develop a theater missile defense system in the region. Russia and China staunchly oppose the system. South Korean officials, in turn, are hoping to win a commitment from Russia that it will use its influence in Pyongyang to discourage North Korean plans to develop and test a new ballistic missile (Itar-Tass, August 29; AP, AFP, August 30).

Earlier, during a visit to Russia in May by the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung had also tried to enlist Moscow’s support for Seoul’s “sunshine” policy–an effort at reconciliation with the communist north (International agencies, May 28-30). Pyongyang, meanwhile, has opposed Kim’s efforts to internationalize the Korean conflict in this way. North Korea has also made clear its opposition to any Russian-South Korean arms dealings, but that factor is likely to carry little weight in Moscow.

With regard to possible arms sales by Russia to South Korea, the lead-up to Sergeev’s visit has provided even more than the usual number of contradictory reports. According to some, Moscow and Seoul have all but inked a deal under which South Korea will purchase three Russian diesel-powered submarines at a price of US$1billion. Other reports have suggested, however, that the deal in question may actually involve the sale of three more advanced Russian Amur class diesel subs. The two sides are said also to be discussing the possible purchase by South Korea of Sukhoi fighter planes (reports differ on the model).

The discussion may be academic, at least at this point. The Russian Defense Ministry’s chief of cooperation with foreign armies, the notorious Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, said on August 30 that Sergeev would sign no arms deals at all during his visit to Seoul. “Reports that the Russian defense minister is going to Seoul to offer concrete models of weaponry to the Korean side are the invention of reporters” (AFP, August 30).