Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 20

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Hong Sun-yong wound up a three-day visit to Moscow this week during which he held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Afterward, both sides declared themselves satisfied with the talks, although official statements released to the press offered mainly generalities and provided little evidence of any concrete initiatives. Discussions during the visit reportedly focused on regional security issues–including tensions on the Korean peninsula–as well as on bilateral ties. The South Korean side did reportedly propose that President Kim Dae-jung visit Moscow in April of this year. But the Russian side said only that it would take consider the proposal (Russian agencies, January 25-27; Kyodo, January 25).

The two sides reportedly failed to reach agreement on one concrete issue under discussion: repayment of Russia’s debts to South Korea, which Moscow estimates at US$1.7 billion. Russia will reportedly deliver T-80U tanks and civilian helicopters to South Korea to cover part of its debt payments. But Seoul is reportedly less anxious to accept other military hardware which it feels will be incompatible with the mostly American-made equipment that it now fields. According to a Russian report, South Korea wants to increase the amount of raw materials, such as oil and aluminum, it receives from Russia (Vremya MN, January 27).

Relations between Russia and South Korea turned rocky in the latter part of 1998 following an acrimonious spy scandal which broke out in early July. A series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions concluded on July 21 when Seoul unexpectedly recalled five of its diplomats from Russia–apparently at Moscow’s behest. But tensions continued to fester following a meeting on July 26 between then Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and his South Korean counterpart, Park Chung-soo. Decisions taken at the meeting with Primakov soon cost Park his job (see the Monitor, July 21, 30).

South Korea and Russia appeared to put the spy wrangle behind them only on September 25, following talks in New York between the two countries’ newly named foreign ministers, Hong and Igor Ivanov. In October of last year, in an effort to regain some momentum in their bilateral relations, South Korea began to push for a summit meeting of their two presidents (Asia Pulse via COMTEX, October 15). For various reasons, including Yeltsin’s many health problems, the meeting has not yet been scheduled.