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Korea - USSR/Russia Relations

Following Japan's surrender in 1945, at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two occupation zones, with the United States in the South and the Soviet Union in the North. In August of 1945 the Soviet Union invaded Korea, which had been under Japan's control since 1910. Fearing that the Soviets intended to seize the entire peninsula from their position in the north, the United States quickly moved its own troops into southern Korea. Japanese troops surrendered to the Russians in the north and to the Americans in the south.

In an effort to avoid a long-term decision regarding Korea's future, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea temporarily along the 38th parallel, a latitudinal line that bisected the country. This line became more rigid after 1946, when Kim Il Sung organized a communist government in the north---the Democratic People's Republic. Shortly after, nationalist exile Syngman Rhee returned to Korea and set up a rival government in the south---the Republic of Korea (ROK). Each government hoped to reunify the country under its own rule. The Soviet Union was initially seen as the controlling hand behind North Korean political and military planning.

In early 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung traveled to Moscow for a meeting with Stalin. They discussed Kims plans to invade the South, and Kim asked what Soviet assistance could be expected. Stalin advised him to discuss the invasion plan with Mao Zedong, who also happened to be in Moscow. After discussions, Mao agreed that the South was weak enough to be conquered, and Stalin also approved the invasion.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the ROK. US Presdient Harry Truman argued that "communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war." Truman believed the attack by North Korea had been part of a larger plan by communist China and, by extension, the Soviet Union. The President informed his advisors that he believed the invasion was "very obviously inspired by the Soviet Union."

Led by the United States, a United Nations coalition of 16 countries undertook its defense. Following China's entry into the war on behalf of North Korea later that year, a stalemate ensued for the final two years of the conflict until an armistice was concluded on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty has never been signed.

As early as May 1979, during a visit to Helsinki, then South Korean minister of foreign affairs Pak Tong-jin signed an agreement obtaining Finnish assistance in exporting South Korean products to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Seoul welcomed trade opportunities with Moscow and considers the Soviet Union a significant part of the global market. Moreover, the natural resources Seoul increasingly needsoil, metals, timber, and fishare abundant in the Soviet Far East. Trade with the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China would also alleviate South Korea's apprehension over the United States' increasing trade protectionism. Moreover, South Korea's expanding trade with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union initially was encouraged by the United States, although Washington later became increasingly concerned over possible high-technology transfers.

One of the most tragic and perplexing civil aviation disasters in the twentieth century was the loss of a Korean jetliner in 1983. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007), a Boeing 747 jumbo jet flying from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea, deviated more than 200 miles into Soviet territory and was shot down 31 August 1983. There were no survivors; all 240 passengers and 29 crewmembers perished in the crash.

Seoul-Moscow relations entered a new era in the 1980s. In many ways, President Roh's Nordpolitik and Mikhail Gorbachev's "New Thinking" had something in common they were attempts to reverse their nations' recent histories. Their efforts, while supported by popular longings, still confronted serious resistance from conservative and powerful bureaucracies. In a fundamental sense, the Soviet economic crisis appeared responsible for Moscow's improved relations with Seoul. Politically, Gorbachev had signaled Soviet interest in improving relations with all countries in the Asia-Pacific region irrespective of sociopolitical system, including South Korea, as was clearly spelled out in his July 1986 Vladivostok and August 1988 Krasnoyarsk speeches.

Improved Seoul-Moscow relations appear to have been carefully and systematically planned in three related stages: sports, trade, and political relations. The Seoul Olympics was a major catalyst. The Soviets were eager to participate in the games, if only for the sake of the athletic competition. Seoul's most honored guests were from the Soviet Union. Moscow sent more than 6,000 Soviets to South Korea. Soviet tourist ships came to Pusan and Inch'on, and Aeroflot planes landed in Seoul. And when the Soviet team headed for home, it also took along thirty- six South Korean television sets, seven minibuses, four large buses, four cars, and one copy machineall gifts from Daewoo.

Economically, Seoul and Moscow were natural partners. South Korea had been seeking to trade with the Soviet Union even before Gorbachev came to power. Gorbachev desired foreign capital and high technology, as well as Seoul's help in alleviating the Soviet economic crisis through direct investment, joint ventures, and trade. Moreover, with the advantage of geographic proximity, South Korea was an ideal source of badly needed consumer goods and managerial skills.

Since the beginning of diplomatic relations in 1990, the relationship between the ROK and Russia improved in a wide array of areas such as politics, economy, energy, science and technology.

In his February 2008 inaugural address, Lee Myoung-bak criticized his two predecessors, saying, "At times over the last ten years, we found ourselves faltering and confused." Lee largely continued the trend of his predecessors in upgrading economic ties with Russia. ROK-Russia economic ties had grown more than 40% annually for the past three years, with two-way trade exceeding US$15 billion in 2007. Much of the growth is due to Russia's natural resources. For example, Lee paid a state visit to Moscow in September 2009 and agreed to a contract for Russia to supply Korea with 7.5 million tons of natural gas annually for thirty years beginning from 2015, amounting to an estimated 20% of Korea's annual natural gas consumption.

And despite doubts about North Korea's cooperation, Lee agreed in principle to Russia exploring plans for a pipeline through North Korea to deliver the gas. The two countries also agreed to investigate the possibilities for linking the inter-Korean railway to the trans-Siberian railway system .

Ever since the two countries relationship was elevated to a strategic cooperative partnership in 2008, the ROK and Russia have been strengthening their cooperation to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and to enhance the substantive cooperation between the ROK and Russia through the Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012, the G20 Summit in September 2013, and the bilateral summit held in Seoul in November 2013.

After the ROK-Russia Defense Strategic Dialogue in March 2012, both countries shared an understanding on the need for expanding military cooperation, and continue discussions to conclude a military cooperation agreement that can systematically support it. In the ROK-Russia summit in 2013, both countries came to an understanding that active coordination to pursue defense technology cooperation is necessary, with the perception that bilateral defense technology cooperation is an important mission to support the relationship between the two countries.

To enhance trust between the two countries, the ROK and Russia expanded exchanges of senior-level personnel. In particular, the visit of the ROK Vice Minister of National Defense to Russia in October 2013 was the first military senior-level visit in four years, and was an opportunity to reinforce strategic communications regarding military cooperation.

As isolation from the international community deepened due to China joining in on the sanctions, North Korea attempted to reduce its political and economic reliance on China and strengthen its cooperative relationship, centering on economy, with Russia. In November 2014, Choe Ryong-hae was sent to Russia as a special envoy to find ways to promote North Koreas bilateral relations with Russia in various sectors, including politics, economy and military.

One area that can directly affect Russias interests is the North Korean policy vector of Seoul. Inter-Korean cooperation would give an impetus to the Russian-North Korean projects that Moscow always wanted to connect with Seoul as well. These include the Hasan-Rajin logistics project, possible proposals for the supply of gas or electricity from Russia to South Korea via its northern neighbor, as well as a railway connection. Russia does not play any significant role in South Korean domestic politics. By 2017 Russias sole hope is that President Park would be replaced with someone who would be a little easier to work with. Despite the clear differences on the question of the U.S. missile defense system and the North Korean issue, and a certain amount of stagnation in relations, Russia and South Korea under President Park Geun-hye have managed to avoid conflicts. After the U.S. and Europe gave hints about softening anti-Russian sanctions, South Korea began to actively look to invest more in Russia.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 14:43:12 ZULU