Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 101

South Korean Defense Minister Cho Sung-tae paid a quiet visit to Moscow last week, during which he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, and other Russian defense officials. The trip was part of a two-nation tour for Cho, who continued on to Tokyo following the talks in Russia. South Korean officials made clear prior to Cho’s departure that the primary goal of his mission was to enlist Moscow’s and Tokyo’s support for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s efforts to improve relations between the two Koreas. “Cho will use his Russian trip to win Moscow’s support to ensure the success of the first inter-Korean summit, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said on May 15. The South Korean president is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on June 12-14.

Cho apparently got at least some of what he wanted in Moscow, reportedly laying out Seoul’s positions regarding both the summit meeting and President Kim Dae-jung’s broader policy of engagement with the North during a meeting with Sergeev on May 16. South Korean sources said that Sergeev assured Cho of Moscow’s full support for Seoul’s diplomatic effort. The two defense ministers also reached a trio of understandings. For one, they apparently agreed to set up a hot line between their respective ministries with an eye to improving bilateral military cooperation. In addition, Sergeev reportedly accepted an invitation to visit Seoul early next year. The Russian defense chief has already traveled once to South Korea. Finally, Cho and Sergeev agreed to boost the number of South Korean officers who receive military training in Russia (AP, May 12, 16; UPI, May 15-16; RIA, May 16; Reuters, The Korea Herald, May 17).

For all of this, the meeting between Cho and Sergeev, and the South Korean defense chief’s visit more generally, appeared to receive little coverage by the Russian media. Several reports published prior to Cho’s arrival in Moscow also suggested that Cho would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. There was no indication, however, that the meeting had actually taken place. It was unclear whether, from Moscow’s perspective, all was accomplished during the visit which might have been.

In fact, there appeared to be some difference in emphasis regarding the purpose of Cho’s visit from the South Korean and the Russian sides. While the former stressed the importance of the upcoming summit meeting, Moscow appeared to be looking elsewhere. One leading Russian daily, for example, focused on Moscow’s longstanding efforts to increase arms sales to South Korea. The paper appeared, in fact, to go so far as to bemoan the fact that an easing of tensions between North and South Korea–a hoped-for benefit of the upcoming summit meeting–could ultimately diminish Seoul’s need to buy armaments and thus adversely impact Russian arms sales efforts. The newspaper observed that Moscow has dealt near to US$500 million in arms to South Korea during the past decade, but also noted that Seoul had accepted these weapons deliveries in partial repayment for Russia’s US$1.8 billion Soviet era debt to South Korea. The paper likewise observed that the two countries have signed no new arms contracts over the past two years. It blamed this failure in part on pressure from Washington on South Korea to continue relying on U.S. made hardware (Kommersant daily, May 17). If some in Moscow hoped that the Cho-Sergeev talks would help to reverse this trend, they were apparently left disappointed. The head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s directorate for international cooperation told reporters that the talks had not focused on military-technical cooperation (Itar-Tass, May 17).

Sergeev, for his part, appeared to use the talks with Cho in large part not to address the problems of the Korean peninsula, but rather as a platform from which to launch new attacks against U.S. missile defense plans. He dismissed Washington’s claims that North Korea represents a legitimate security threat to the United States, and repeated Russian warnings that any U.S. abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would result in a “new spiral of the arms race” (AP, May 16). It was unclear whether he raised the subject, but Moscow has also denounced preliminary Japanese-U.S. proposals to deploy a theater missile defense system in Asia. Although South Korea has said it does seek to participate in that system, Seoul has, like Tokyo and Washington, expressed concern over North Korea’s missile capabilities.

Moscow, meanwhile, has long sought to play a greater role in managing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and Seoul may now be inclined to give Russia that opportunity. South Korean officials have apparently taken notice of recently elected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated desire to restore Moscow’s international influence, and believe that a more energetic Russia could have an impact on security developments in Asia. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that Moscow has also moved recently to improve ties with the government in North Korea. Some in Seoul apparently believe that this action–Moscow and Pyongyang signed a friendship treaty in February–could increase Russia’s influence in the North Korean capital, and that it could therefore make Moscow a more valuable player in the current diplomatic efforts to fashion a Korean settlement (The Korea Herald, February 10, May 10).