Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 42

Russian President Vladimir Putin completed a high-profile three-day visit to South Korea yesterday which appeared to be a considerable success for him on a host of geopolitical issues–though perhaps less so with regard to bilateral trade and economic issues. Given Russian foreign and security policy priorities at the moment, however, to Putin the glass probably looked more half-full than half-empty. The visit appeared to win him South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s unexpected backing for Moscow’s staunch opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. It appeared simultaneously to open up at least the possibility that Moscow might at last achieve one of its other more sought-after foreign policy goals: a meaningful role in international deliberations over a Korean peace settlement. For these reasons, Putin’s visit appeared to end a string of foreign trips which yielded generally desultory results and produced a seeming loss of diplomatic momentum, which was evidenced most obviously during Putin’s recent, poorly planned visit to Austria.

Putin arrived in Seoul amid an intensifying Russian campaign to rally international opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, and hoped to win some support in this area from Kim. He probably succeeded more than he had expected. The two leaders issued a joint communique on Wednesday which stated in its essentials the Russian position on the missile defense issue, describing the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability and an important foundation of international efforts on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.” It also said that the treaty should “be preserved and strengthened” The statement, moreover, went on to call for the entry into force of the START II treaty and the conclusion soon thereafter of a follow-up START III accord. Further, it urged the speedy ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

On all these points, the joint communique highlighted the arguments Moscow has made in its efforts to discredit strategic arms control positions the Bush administration has articulated or suggested. That is, it placed priority on maintaining the ABM treaty over deploying a national missile defense system, appeared to emphasize the importance of preserving the existing international strategic security system over jettisoning parts of it in favor of unilateral arms reduction measures, and highlighted Moscow’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty over Washington’s own failure to do so. Kim’s agreement to the final statement was all the more surprising given the obvious facts that South Korea is an ally of the United States and home to 37,000 U.S. troops, and that Washington has justified deployment of a ballistic missile defense system in large part on the missile threat posed by North Korea.

Whether Kim sticks to the positions articulated in this week’s joint communique is another matter. He is to travel to Washington next week for a meeting with President George W. Bush, and will undoubtedly be asked to explain the Russian-South Korean statement. Meanwhile, amid press speculation that Kim may have committed a “diplomatic error” this week, the South Korean government appeared almost immediately to be distancing itself from the text contained in the communique. South Korean spokesmen said that references in it to the ABM treaty had no connection to U.S. missile defense plans, and intimated that the text used in the communique had been taken in a pro-forma sort of way from documents approved by Washington at earlier international meetings. Those meetings, of course, came during the Clinton presidency and did not reflect the changed positions of the current U.S. administration.

For all of that, the South Koreans have in fact not embraced U.S. national missile defense plans, preferring instead to adopt a posture which one South Korean daily suggested might be called “strategic ambiguity.” Seoul’s reservations are apparently related to concerns that the U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty and the deployment of a missile defense system could–as critics of the U.S. policy have charged–provoke a destabilizing arms race in Asia which might ultimately complicate South Korea’s own security situation and undermine its effort to mend fences with the North. Indeed, the South Koreans are said to be nervous about the prospect that a harder line by the Bush administration toward North Korea could also torpedo Kim’s so-called “sunshine policy.” That policy is his effort to bring about a reconciliation between the two Koreas, even at the cost of making some South Korean concessions to the North. This last aspect of the policy has generated opposition within South Korea itself, however, and is one reason why Kim has worked so hard to gather international support for his reconciliation effort. Putin was happy to give it, which may be another reason why the South Korean leader agreed to the language of the joint communique. Kim clearly hopes to get the same sort of support when he travels to Washington.

Another question left open at the close of this week’s Russian-South Korean summit was whether it also opened the way for a meaningful Russian role in the Korean peacemaking process. To date, deliberations in this area have been conducted according to a “two plus two” formula that involves the United States and China, along with the two Koreas. Despite repeated efforts to carve out a niche for itself, Russia has thus far been effectively kept out of the game. Given Putin’s embrace of Kim’s sunshine policy, however, that could change. South Korean officials were quoted as saying this week that, while they would adhere to the existing four-party peace formula, “we don’t intend to shut out Russia.”

At the same time, Moscow may have to earn its way into the peacemaking club with a contribution which goes beyond rhetorical support for Kim’s reconciliation effort. In Seoul, at least, that contribution is likely to be judged on the degree to which the Russians are able to exercise influence in Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is scheduled to travel to Russia in April for a second meeting with Putin. The South Koreans hope that Putin can convince him to take a more active role in promoting reconciliation, and thus blunt criticism heard in the South that it is South Korean concessions alone which are driving the reconciliation process. It is also hoped that Putin can get Kim Jong-il to meet an earlier commitment–one reportedly given during Putin’s meeting with Kim last July–to terminate its missile development program. That, the South Koreans believe, would help ensure U.S. support for the reconciliation process. It would likely be an even bigger plumb for Putin, one which might elevate him to a central role in the Korean peace process and, equally important in Moscow’s view, buttress the Russian attack on U.S. missile defense (New York Times, February 26, 28; Reuters, February 26-27; AP, February 28; Korea Herald, February 26-28; JoongAng Ilbo, February 27-28; Korea Times, February 27-28).