Eurasia Right to Left

19 march 2015

A View from the Korean Peninsula

Alexander Vorontsov is Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: Seoul believes that South Korea, with its advanced port infrastructure, is a natural gateway to the Pacific, opening access to the entire continent of Eurasia all the way to the Atlantic.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Eurasia Initiative, put forward in the fall of 2013, was a declaration of intent to launch a mega-project encompassing not just Southeast Asia but a far greater space. The official title is “Opening and Denuclearization of North Korea through the Peaceful Prosperity of Eurasia.” The Eurasia Initiative is an ambitious plan to change the fundamentals of global economy, diplomacy, and national security geography, recreate the history of “one continent,” and advance global peace within one economic bloc and market. It is a “creative organization” of the global village, something not a single world leader has ever considered establishing. President Park described her plan for peaceful prosperity in Eurasia as “Resurrection of the Silk Road”.

WHOSE ROAD IS GREATER?

Possibly, this briskly titled initiative pursued, among other aims, that of intercepting the world’s attention, at that moment riveted to a similar idea unveiled by China’s President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese leader had outlined a global strategy for creating a cross-continental Silk Road (and eventually its maritime twin) from East to West. Russia, which constitutes a natural and territorially longest Eurasian corridor, came out with its own concept of Eurasian integration. Small wonder, therefore, that Moscow could not but start asking questions about how well the elements of the three countries’ national strategies interlock.

The parameters have now begun to get a clear shape at last. In all of its ambitious undertakings Beijing prefers to never be in a rush and to avoid excessive attention to detail. Research into specific issues will be the job of a special economic committee, which is expected to deliver its ideas in the near future. At this point it is very clear that regardless of the specific development options this mega-project will be oriented towards a set of priority tasks expected to accelerate the reform and economic upturn in China’s western provinces. On the one hand, this region is an economic outsider, but on the other hand, throughout many centuries (except for the brief period of Soviet government in Central Asia, as some Chinese scholars insist) it served as a natural bridge linking Chinese civilization with Central Asia and the Islamic East in general. Apparently, such calculations are an attempt to take into consideration the fact that in recent years the adjacent Central Asian regions began to look increasingly like a gateway widely open to China’s westward economic expansion. But at the same time they have turned into one of the permanent sources of Islamic expansion, including armed expansion into China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Area.

The geopolitical imperatives of China’s westward turn are quite clear – it is a precaution against the risk of a naval blockade by the United States in case of a possible worsening of relations. This possibility has also prompted China to speed up and diversify its activity, as well as to create means of supporting it along different lines. Anyhow, Chinese strategists make no secret of the fact that they remember the lessons of the war in the Pacific and are well aware of the U.S. Navy’s ability to blockade China.

Russia has for many years worked on and been implementing its own Eurasian strategy. Through a number of consistent moves it has achieved the level of the Eurasian Economic Union. As far as is known, Chinese officials have been persuading the Kremlin that they are not by any means after unilateral advantages on this strategic track and that the priority of cooperation for them is more than obvious. Time will tell if this is really so, but the positive record of interaction within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS group makes one hopeful that Beijing’s geopolitical turn westwards, with the inevitably more vigorous economic and political expansion, will be outbalanced not just by fine declarations, but by adequate and constructive work and China’s practical positive steps towards its neighbors, including mutually beneficial investments, logistics and other projects.

The “third arrow” of strategic expansion into the Eurasian mainland has come from a rather unexpected direction, from the remotest actor of all. The scale of the idea is breathtaking. Its South Korean architects have conceived a project for putting together and accomplishing something nobody else has ever dreamed of.

Hyun Kyung-dae, the Executive Vice-Chairperson of the National Unification Advisory Council, described it as follows: “President Park’s Eurasia Initiative starts from the immeasurable potential of the regions. The economic blocs covered by Eurasia are the EU and Russia in the West and Northeast Asia including China in the East, which will be covered by the integration of the Northern Economy excluding America. The Eurasia community can be combined with ASEAN in the South, which becomes the combination of South and North Economies. Moreover, it may include NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) across the Pacific Ocean. It will then be a gigantic market accounting for more than 90 percent of the world economy. The Korean Peninsula is the Gateway of Eurasia. 

“President Park emphasized that energy infrastructure including electric power networks and gas and oil pipelines in the regions should be connected by making use of their geographical characteristics wherein the world’s largest producing and consuming countries coexist. Moreover, the shale gas of China and oil and gas in East Siberia will be developed jointly to achieve the win-win strategy of Eurasia’s energy cooperation.

“High on the list of President Park’s Eurasia Initiative is the ?Silk Road Express (SRX)’ connecting Busan, South Korea-North Korea-Russia-China-Central Asia-Europe. Once the SRX is connected, the transportation time through Suez Canal will take only 14 days from the current 45 days.

“Apart from reaping economic benefits, the problems of frequent sea robberies and political instability in Egypt, Syria, and other areas can also be overcome. President Park told President Putin when they had summit talks last September that she dreamt of a train leaving Busan, South Korea, for Europe via Russia, which is the ?Silk Road Express.’ The North Pole Route she mentioned at the Eurasia Conference supplements the project with a silk road in the sea. 

“At the APEC summit last October President Putin proposed the project of laying gas pipelines in the East Sea instead of gas pipelines coming through North Korea. President Putin responded to Park’s proposal of Eurasia Initiative with ‘Energy-Logistics Networks’,” Hyun Kyung-dae said.

WHAT DOES SOUTH KOREA RELY ON?

Does Seoul have the potential for such global ambitions? It most certainly does. The economic miracle that occurred on the banks of the Hangang is already having considerable influence on the regional and, to a certain extent, on the world economies. The ambitions of a rising power, which is already turning its largest ports into international super hubs are a reality. South Korea’s isolation from Eurasia (by virtue of military and political circumstances), which in fact kept the country’s status reduced to that of an island, is a long-gone whim of history.

Over the past 20 years or so, many Russians have exerted a lot of political, scientific, theoretical, administrative, and practical efforts to develop and implement a major project that would link the railroads of North Korea and South Korea to the Trans-Siberian Railway and farther to any point in Europe. In stage one a 54-kilometer railway from Hasan on the Russian-North Korean border to the DPRK’s port of Rajin was finished and commissioned in 2013. The ideas of South Korea’s president are bound to meet with an enthusiastic response from many supporters in Russia.

Seoul believes that South Korea, with its advanced port infrastructure, is a natural gateway to the Pacific, opening access to the entire continent of Eurasia all the way to the Atlantic. Are these ambitions realistic? For the sake of impartiality one should bear in mind the long and generally successful history of South Korea’s economic and cultural cooperation with the Central Asian countries. Last year South Korea’s president, probably getting somewhat ahead of her Beijing counterpart visited three Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Multi-billion-dollar contracts were signed in each of them.

The most important ones include the gas project and the intention to lay a pipeline in Uzbekistan’s Surgil region near Lake Aral, and a combined cycle power plant in Talimarjan, 440 kilometers southwest of Tashkent. The LS Group signed a $500-million agreement on a strategic alliance to sell tractors, electric engineering and telecommunications infrastructure, as well as spare parts and industrial materials to Uzbekistan. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power reaffirmed plans to increase uranium purchases from the Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Complex. Also, South Korea concluded a $300-million contract for building a 100-megawatt solar power plant in Samarkand. The Korea International Cooperation Agency KOICA will provide $250 million worth of investment into the solar power plant-related projects. The South Koreans hope the project’s success will enable Seoul to retain a leading role in building Uzbekistan’s four-gigawatt solar power plant by 2030. One of the key tasks on the agenda of President Park’s visit was to negotiate South Korea’s stake in building a gas processing plant and in $4-billion gas production projects in the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, where a consortium of Uzbek and Russian firms has already been developing the Kandym gas field for sometime. Its overall reserves are estimated at 150-180 billion cubic meters, and eight billion cubic meters will be extracted under the project every year. The tight schedule of President Park’s tour is clear evidence of how serious Seoul’s intentions are.

One cannot but bear in mind the presence of a large Korean diaspora in Central Asia (in Uzbekistan in particular) whose members met with the South Korean president during her visit. Some compatriots have been successful in assisting South Korean businesses in the country.

WHAT IS ESSENTIAL

To what extent can the three projects (Russian, Chinese and South Korean) pursuing far-reaching integration aims be secure against conflicts? Russia and China have cooperated in Central Asia for quite a while and seem to have devised a mode of co-existence a long time ago. Further processes between them will most likely be gradual and easy to forecast. Naturally, the similarity of political and strategic evaluations of world developments will play an important role.

The fast emergence of the South Korean factor in the Eurasian space (it should be remembered that South Korea is a military and political ally of Washington), on the one hand, was well expected, and on the other, its benefits will outnumber potential reasons for alarm.

It is surely none of Russia’s business how many billions of South Korean investment were pumped into (or promised to) Central Asia in 2014. The focus of attention is different – the Silk Road Express project and other traditionally important routes, plans for developing infrastructural and power supply logistics and industries are consonant with Russia’s own plans for developing Eastern Siberia and the Far East. In combination with the South Korean president’s wish to extend support to Russia in creating an innovative economy they are objectively capable of producing a synergetic effect.

In the title of the concept that South Korean government spokesman Hung Kyung-dae used the second, most important task was stated as follows: Opening and Denuclearization of North Korea through the Peaceful Prosperity of Eurasia. In recent years fast-tracked unification of the Korean Peninsula (naturally on South Korean terms) has been a super task undertaken by the authorities in Seoul. South Korea believes that support for this process from the international community must be mobilized to the maximum extent possible, specifically in the context of the Eurasian initiative. As a matter of fact, this aim was formulated in very clear terms: “The centerpiece of President Park’s Eurasia Initiative is this. It includes all values of the economy, diplomacy, and national security, which can change the future of the Korean Peninsula. It aims at making a gigantic wave of peace and prosperity in Eurasia Communities originating in Europe, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East as a motive for the reformation, opening, and denuclearization of North Korea and improving human rights in the North,” Hyun Kyung-dae explained.

“We may use Eurasian countries as leverage to convince North Korea; if Pyongyang refuses, however, we increase the pressure on North Korea – where the line of Eurasia Prosperity is severed – to connect the Eurasian line to North Korea by force. Can Pyongyang stop the locomotive of the Eurasian community, which is a drastic revolution of the world history?” Hung Kyung-dae stated.

It should be remembered, however, that the version of President Park’s speech released by the press-office of the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean chief executive, stated this idea in a milder and more diplomatic way, and the list of means to be used in relations with North Korea was confined to persuasion.

Whatever the case, Moscow would like to avoid excessive politicization of the North Korean factor to rule out a situation where it may be drawn once again in an exclusively bilateral and delicate intra-Korean affair. As far as the nuclear issue is concerned, Moscow remains certain that nothing better than the six-party negotiations has been invented so far.

The conclusion is that South Korea’s initiative poses no threat to Russia’s project of the Eurasian Economic Union, nor does it offer any promising opportunities, except for the possibility to develop some converging interests in the Central Asian region.

But in the longer term both ambitious programs may be filled with substance and become mutually attractive. For instance, joint trilateral projects (by Russia, North Korea and South Korea) in the DPRK and in Russia are a possibility. And, of course, President Park’s Eurasia Initiative is consonant with Russia’s long-term plans for upgrading and breathing a new life into Eastern Siberia and the Far East and integrating them in the Northeast Asian economies.

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