Beyond Geopolitics: South Korea’s Eurasia Initiative as a New Nordpolitik

Beyond Geopolitics: South Korea’s Eurasia Initiative as a New Nordpolitik 1

On October 18, 2013, at an international conference on Eurasian cooperation in Seoul, Park Geun-hye proposed the “Eurasia Initiative.” Under the watchwords of “one continent, creative continent, and peaceful continent,” the initiative projects a unified system of transport, energy, and trade networks across the vast Eurasian continent. It presupposes a “Silk Road Express,” which would connect rail and road networks from Busan to Europe, as well as new sea routes through the Arctic Ocean. This transport integration is to be followed by the gradual elimination of trade barriers, leading to the establishment of a vast free trade zone. Progress on the Eurasia Initiative, however, has not been smooth with many factors interfering. What are the fundamental objectives that South Korea is trying to achieve? What factors are interrupting or facilitating the initiative? How far has it progressed in the year that marks the mid-point of Park’s presidency? Where should it be heading in the coming years? These are questions of special interest at a time of increasing flux in the areas in question.

The Eurasia Initiative in Three Dimensions

The Eurasia Initiative has implications in at least three dimensions. In the geo-economic dimension, it sets forth not only South Korea’s vision of economic integration with the Eurasian space, but also calls for the participation of the countries in the region in collaborative multilateral economic projects in the spheres of logistics and transport, energy, science and technology, and even culture. Multilateral economic cooperation in Eurasia should revolve around a pivotal trans-Eurasian corridor comprised of energy, transportation, and distribution networks. At the domestic level, the initiative, by opening up access to the vast Eurasian economy, is intended to imbue the sluggish South Korean economy with new momentum that could facilitate its advance to the innovation-driven phase of economic growth. The keyword being “creative,” this initiative fulfills one of Park’s top domestic priorities to convert the Korean economy into a “creative economy.”

In the security dimension, the Eurasia Initiative is a practical proposal to improve on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, particularly by involving North Korea in multilateral economic cooperation and eventually inducing changes. In this regard, it could be considered a means to two other foreign policy goals of the Park administration—the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), under which Seoul pursues a new multilateral cooperative framework built upon gradually developed habits of cooperation among regional countries, and the Korean Peninsula Trust-Building Process, which seeks to lay out the foundation for eventual unification through the process of inter-Korean trust building.

The third dimension has to do with South Korea’s geopolitical strategy to resolve the problem of “dual reliance” on the United States and China, as it becomes increasingly caught in their strategic rivalry. The Korea-US alliance has been the backbone of South Korea’s security since the Korean War, and South Korea’s reliance on this cannot help but deepen as long as the country faces a nuclear North Korea. The economic side of the story unfolds otherwise, however. South Korea is among those economies most heavily dependent on international trade with its GDP share of international trade topping the G20 countries, hovering well over 90 percent. Since 2003, China has been its number one trading partner, accounting for over 20 percent of South Korea’s trade volume. Bilateral trade, reaching over USD 270 billion in 2013, has swollen almost 55 times since 1992. China also tops South Korea’s FDI charts, as its accumulated investments amounted to USD 5 billion in 2013.2 Staying balanced between the two great powers is not easy, and a diplomatic initiative towards Eurasia could be the answer, leaving South Korea as a “pivot state.”3

The South Korean Tradition of Nordpolitik

South Korea’s Nordpolitik dates back to President Park Chung-hee, father of President Park, and made significant progress during the Roh Tae-woo administration in the late 1980s and early 1990s to be inherited by the succeeding administrations, regardless of their political inclinations. It has had at least two core objectives: to enhance peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and to advance into the Eurasian continent for economic gains. Depending on which of the two gets more attention, the successive Nordpolitik policies can be divided into two approaches: market-centered and peace and security-centered. The Park Chung-hee, Roh Tae-woo, and Kim Dae-jung administrations took a peace/security-centered approach that focuses on the relationship with North Korea, while the administrations of Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak were market-centered. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was balanced between the two.

The Park Chung-hee administration was the first to initiate Nordpolitik, with the June 23rd Declaration in 1973 that manifested Seoul’s determination to open doors, on the basis of reciprocity, to all the communist countries. Park utilized détente of the early 1970s between the United States and the Soviet Union and between the United States and China. The initiative also came hand in hand with the July 4th North-South Joint Statement, which set three agreed principles on Korean reunification,4 but the immediate fading of détente and deteriorating inter-Korean relations made Park’s Nordpolitik little more than political rhetoric.

The Roh Tae-woo administration brought a breakthrough to Nordpolitik. Seizing the opportunity offered by another détente, it established diplomatic relationships with all of the Soviet bloc countries as well as China during 1989 and 1992. Roh’s Nordpolitik was also anchored on a proactive North Korea policy, reflected in the two Koreas simultaneously joining the United Nations, the North-South denuclearization declaration, and the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement in 1991. However, the first North Korean nuclear crisis brought Nordpolitik to a halt after encircling North Korea with the former communist countries. The succeeding Kim Young-sam administration was not able to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War, however, since the first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s imposed a confrontational zero-sum perception and stringent policy towards the North, which was repeated after the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks by the Lee Myung-bak administration. In reaction to the engagement policy of the previous progressive administrations, Lee from the beginning prioritized the Korea-US alliance and triangular collaboration between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington at the expense of inter-Korean relations. In the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, the administration imposed May 24 measures that suspended all economic and other exchanges with the North. Although its proactive northern economic policy within the framework of the “New Asia Initiative” advanced economic relations with Russia and Central Asian countries, the hawkish North Korea policy fundamentally restrained Lee’s success with Nordpolitik in the peace and security dimension.

Nordpolitik under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations is in clear contrast to that of Kim Young-sam and Lee Myung-bak. Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” towards the North upheld the tradition of the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement of the Roh Tae-woo administration, as he tried to enhance relations with Moscow even after George W. Bush chose a containment policy towards Pyongyang. He insisted that the two Koreas should resolve Korean issues, with North Korea’s security assured by the four major powers. The engagement policy of Kim Dae-jung persisted in the Roh Moo-hyun administration despite the second nuclear crisis triggered by Pyongyang’s highly enriched uranium program in 2002 and its first nuclear test in 2006. Under the rubric of “Peace and Prosperity” in Northeast Asia, Roh projected a vision that Korea become a hub state of Asia, bridging the Eurasian continent and the seas, beyond stable management of inter-Korean relations.5 On the basis of the “Master Plan for Korea’s Advance to Central Asia,” he greatly enhanced economic relations with Russia and Central Asia. Nordpolitik of the two progressive administrations was intended to induce changes in North Korea through inter-Korean reconciliation, but it was fundamentally circumscribed by the hardening relations between Washington and Pyongyang triggered by Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations.

Nordpolitik for the past four decades was a partial success. Significant progress was made in economic relations with Russia and Central Asia, but peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is no better than in the early 1970s. Three factors were crucial in shaping and constraining the policy: the changing geopolitical context, Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang, and Pyongyang’s reactions and responses. How are these three elements affecting the Park Geun-hye administration’s new Nordpolitik?

Return of Classic Geopolitics in Northeast Asia

Two contrasting trends are looming over the new Nordpolitik: The return of classic geopolitics that prevailed in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, and the convergence of the geo-economic interests of neighboring countries toward North Korea. Nowhere is the return of geopolitics more present than in today’s Northeast Asia, where politics are now revolving around strategic national rivalries, conflicting territorial claims, naval buildups, and past historical issues. A rising China with enhanced maritime capabilities challenges US dominance, confronting its pivot to the region.6 This is demonstrated by recent conflicts in the East and South China seas, as well as a series of China’s increasingly assertive external behavior. Japan’s move towards a “normal state,” Abe’s push for collective self-defense, also stirs concerns of the countries in the region that were victimized by Japan’s imperialist past.

Russia is adding fuel to the fire. The Ukrainian crisis is not only driving its relations with the West to new low not seen since the end of the Cold War, but also accelerating its pivot to Asia. Moscow and Beijing are forming a collaborative front to counter Washington’s pivot to Asia. Back in 2010, the two countries agreed to work together to create a basically new regional security system. At the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia) summit in Shanghai last year, they jointly declared “New Security” concept, aimed at a new security architecture among Asian countries. They carried out their largest ever joint naval exercises last May, which coincided with Putin’s visit to China. This time, the venue was the East China Sea, where the territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands is underway. Putin’s visit to China demonstrated Russia’s firm resolve to turn to Asia. On May 21, Gazprom and the CNPC finally brought sluggish talks to an end by signing a USD 400 billion deal, under which Russia is to export East Siberian and Far Eastern natural gas to China for a period of 30 years starting in 2018.

The regional geopolitical context is pushing Seoul to opt for one or another of the contending blocs—the United States and Japan, and China and Russia. In this confrontational context, Washington and Tokyo do not want to see Seoul leaning towards Moscow and Beijing, the two crucial partners in Seoul’s new Nordpolitik. It remains allied to Washington, but the costs of taking sides with it against China and Russia are too high for South Korea’s new northern initiative. The return of classic geopolitics in Northeast Asia appears to Seoul to be nothing but the resurgence of the old ideological geopolitics that has long constrained its Nordpolitik.

Even so, opportunities are opening by the convergence of the geo-economic interests of China and Russia on North Korea’s northern border along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. China has shown keen interest in relation to its strategy of developing the three Northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang at least since 2003, while Russia has been looking for a maritime outlet and spurring the integration of its economy, East Siberia and the Far East in particular, with the Asia-Pacific economy. In such national projects as the Development of the Liaoning Coastal Economic Belt and the Development of the Changchun-Jilin-Tumen Area, the North Korean border areas play a crucial role for China’s search for maritime transportation channels. China has been involved in joint projects with North Korea to develop Rason city and the Rajin port in relation to the development of Changchun, Jilin, and Tumen, while agreeing to jointly develop Hwangeumpyung and Wihwado near Sinuiju in connection with its Liaoning Coastal Economic Belt. China is currently building an expressway between Hunchun, Chinese easternmost city bordering North Korea and Russia, and Rajin to be completed this year, while the construction of the Jilin-Hunchun express railway was completed in 2013. Moreover, a consortium of Chinese companies agreed with Pyongyang in December 2013 to construct 400 kilometer-long express railways and roads between Sinuiju and Kaesong. Once completed, the railways are to be connected to trans-Chinese railways and the Trans-Siberian Railway via the North Korean cities of Jeongju and Rajin. The Chinese consortium will operate the railways for thirty years.

Russia, for its part, recognizes the importance of developing East Siberia and the Russian Far East through integration with Asian economies.7 Since the beginning of his third term in May 2013, Putin has repeatedly pursued the “New East Policy” out of the concern that Russia would permanently remain in Europe’s periphery without developing a region that is economically retarded despite its huge economic potential. It established a joint venture with North Korea RasonKonTrans to connect the 54-kilometer long Rajin-Khasan railroad, which was opened in September 2013, and to develop Rajin’s third pier and its facilities, including cargo terminals. Russia secured usage rights to the pier for 50 years, while China did the same with the first pier.

Seizing on the Opportunities?

Seoul is taking a bilateral approach to the regional countries in order to maximize the opportunities while minimizing the challenges. Russia is considered a core country in the Eurasia Initiative, whose economic scheme centers on transport and energy networks to be built around Trans-Korean Railways (TKR) and Trans-Siberian Railways (TSR) running from Busan to Europe across Russia, and around oil and gas pipelines and electric power grids stretching from Russia’s Eastern Siberia and the Far East to South Korea across North Korea. Russia had long pursued these projects in vain. They were shelved due to deteriorating inter-Korean relations and doubts about economic feasibility in South Korea. A breakthrough came in Putin’s visit to Korea in November 2013, when the two parties agreed on a Korean consortium’s participation in the Russia-North Korea joint venture RasonKonTrans. After two visits of the South Korean consortium comprised of Posco, Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., and Korea Railroad Corporation to Rajin in 2014, in the landmark pilot operation of December 2014, 40,500 tons of Russian coal arrived in South Korea on a Chinese-flagged ship.

The recent upsurge in Russian-North Korean economic relations could expand the opportunities for Seoul’s new Nordpolitik. Moscow and Pyongyang agreed on the USD 25 billion Pobeda (victory) project for North Korean railroad modernization to be carried out by Mostovik in exchange for access to such North Korean natural resources as rare earth metals, gold, coal, and titanium. A ground-breaking ceremony occurred at the East Pyongyang station on October 21, 2014.8 It was also reported that negotiations between Moscow and Pyongyang were under way on another grand project (estimate USD 20-30 billion) to repair the North’s electric power grids to transmit electricity from the Russian Far East to North Korea and, eventually, to South Korea.9 Russia’s minister for the Development of the Far East and the head of the Russian-North Korean Intergovernmental Committee Alexander Galushka was quoted as saying after his visit to the North last October that the North Koreans had already agreed to the idea of an energy grid stretching from Russia into South Korea. Also on the negotiating table in last October was the possibility of creating a visa-free regime between the two countries to allow North Korean workers to come to Russia for ambitious development projects in the Far East.10 The two parties agreed to set up a North Korea-Russia business council. While Russian businessmen have shown interest in the development of the Kaesong Special Economic Zone, North Koreans have shown interest in the agricultural development of the Russian Far East.

Pyongyang is turning to Moscow in an attempt to break its diplomatic isolation, seeking political support and economic cooperation amid growing pressure from the West over its nuclear program and human rights issues. Pyongyang also wants to dilute its heavy economic reliance on Beijing, which now accounts for over 90 percent of its international trade, while at the same time, compensating for the relations with Beijing that have cooled off since North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013. Moscow, on its part, would like to see its Far East development project progress even amid Western sanctions for the Ukrainian crisis and plummeting oil prices. This coincidence of interests has driven the two closer, as demonstrated by a series of recent high-level official visits.11

The Ukrainian crisis is obviously an obstacle to renewed Nordpolitik, and this is a reason why South Korea has not gone further than rhetorical condemnation of Russia for its annexation of the Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, not joining the Western sanctions. Increasing North Korea-Russia economic cooperation could pave the way to expanded trilateral economic cooperation in the framework of the Eurasia Initiative. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after talks with his North Korean counterpart Lee Soo-young last October, said that the Rajin logistics center would be linked to the TKR and TSR projects, in which Russia and the two Koreas will participate. He also expected trilateral cooperation on energy pipelines through North Korea to South Korea.12 Seoul has yet to make its choice.

The relations between Seoul and Beijing are at their zenith under the leaderships of Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored the synergic effects of the linkage between Seoul’s Eurasia Initiative and China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy when he met with Park in Seoul prior to Xi Jinping’s state visit. When Xi was in Seoul in July 2014, Park made it explicit that efforts should be made to link the Eurasia Initiative to China’s New Silk Road plan in a speech to some 500 leading businessmen and government officials gathered for the South Korea-China Economic Trade Forum.13 In Park’s visit to China on the occasion of the APEC summit last November, the two countries agreed to conclude Korea-China FTA negotiations. Although there are no clear signs yet for South Korea to take part in any of the Pyongyang-Beijing joint projects currently under way in North Korea, the good relationship with Beijing leaves the door open to its participation, as was the case in its decision to join RasonKonTrans in November 2013. Seoul’s choice, however, is intimately connected to its posture towards Pyongyang and Pyongyang’s response.

Seoul’s Proposals Falling on Pyongyang’s Deaf Ears

In contrast to the stringent containment policy of the Lee administration, Park has been taking a relatively flexible approach to engage the North in dialogue, i.e., the “Korean Peninsula Trust-Building Process.” While maintaining a firm defense posture, this policy starts from non-security issues to lay the groundwork for eventual inter-Korean reconciliation. Park’s policy is based on an incremental approach— moving from small, compartmentalized areas to the final goal through gradual and prudent conditional steps. Her speech in Dresden in March 2014 unveiled a roadmap for inter-Korean reconciliation, following her New Year’s address, when she dubbed unification an “economic bonanza.” She presented three umbrella agendas to lay the foundation for peaceful unification: humanity, co-prosperity and integration14 Compared to the previous administration’s “Grand Bargain” approach, under which the irreversible denuclearization of North Korea was proposed in a single agreement in exchange for security assurances, normalization of relations, and economic assistance, Park’s proposals are delinked from denuclearization.

The policy was reflected in the 2014 Inter-Korean Development Program reported by the Ministry of Unification to the National Assembly’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and National Unification on August 18.15 This program is the first to delineate detailed plans for large-scale investments in North Korean infrastructure building. Also outlined was the expansion of inter-Korean economic collaboration that includes the construction of the Kaesong-Sinuiju and Kaesong-Pyongyang railroads, Imjin River flood prevention, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) support of the North Korean fishing industry, and revitalization of inter-Korean shipping. Although the ministry said that the plans would be carried out only under “favorable circumstances,” this signals that Seoul is softening its stance towards Pyongyang, following Park’s proposal that South and North Korea team up to restore the ecological system in the DMZ during a speech on the August 15 Korean Liberation Day. In July 2014, the Unification Preparatory Committee headed by Park was launched to explore ways to realize unification, to provide basic guideline, and to analyze related sources in preparation for reunification.16 The committee in December proposed to the North a comprehensive inter-Korean dialogue.

Park’s proposals to engage North Korea are reflected in the New Year’s report to the president made jointly by the ministries of Foreign Affairs, National Unification, National Defense, and Patriots and Veterans Affairs.17 Park explicitly expressed her willingness to take part in a summit with Pyongyang without preconditions at her annual press conference in January 12, days after Kim Jong-un in his annual New Year’s Day speech said that there was “no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created.”18 This year it is expected that South Korea will beef up its “unification diplomacy” while pursuing the promulgation of a Unification Charter that will stipulate the vision, roadmap, and directions for peaceful unification and a law on Laying the Foundations for Peaceful Unification, which would establish a system for coordination and cooperation among governmental organizations related to unification.

Seoul’s proposals have fallen on deaf ears. In 2014, North Korea recorded the highest number of military provocations.19 North-South relations have virtually stalled since the Lee Myung-bak administration. Although the Park administration tries to differentiate its North Korea policy from Lee’s, inter-Korean relations—economic relations in particular—have fallen into a trap of the May 24 measures imposed by the Lee administration. Proposals and demands from both sides are running in parallel.20 Without resolving the predicament, Seoul’s proposals end in hollow echoes.

De Facto Reforms in North Korea

Kim Jong-un appears to have been successful so far in consolidating his regime. The relative stability of the North Korean economy for the past three years has played a role.21 Kim Jong-un has introduced a series of economic reform measures that include the June 28 and December 1 measures in 2012, March 1 measures in 2013, and most recently, May 30 measures in 2014. These were taken to raise productivity in the industrial and agricultural sectors by allowing more market elements and by delegating autonomous rights to production, distribution, management, and employment to the economic units of production. In 2013 and 2014, Pyongyang also designated a total of 19 economic development districts. The Plenary Meeting of the Korean Workers Party’s Central Committee on March 31, 2013 made official the new policy of “simultaneous and parallel development of nuclear capacity and economy.” In comparison to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un appears to reinterpret the authoritarian mentality based on Kim Il-sung’s juche ideology, and has begun to assign no lesser, if not greater, priority to economic development than to the military.

Another notable trend is the relaxation of controls over spontaneous markets, which have been emerging since the “Arduous March” in the mid-1990s. The North Korean people have learned how to survive on their own without relying on the state. Markets have become indispensible, accounting for 80 percent of household income and the major source of foods.22 The ruling elite has had no choice but to tacitly approve spontaneous marketization from below; however, recognizing that too much dispersion of markets could overwhelm the regime, it has intermittently suppressed them in a “stop-go” pattern since the late-1990s.23 So far, this old pattern has not resurfaced. The authorities have been silent about increasingly flourishing markets.

The spontaneous marketization from below combined with the compromise between market and counter-market could lead to a de facto reformed economy, which would, in turn, dramatically facilitate Seoul’s Eurasia Initiative. Since Park extolled the potential benefits of Korean unification as a “bonanza” early last year, renewed attention has been directed to the issue, but Seoul needs to take a sequencing approach to North Korea—separating the goal of the Korean unification from the transition. Without a proper transition within North Korea, the unification may not lead to a bonanza. There are already enough visions, master plans, roadmaps, and proposals to Pyongyang, many linked to advancing the Eurasia Initiative. To imbue life into the new Nordpolitik, what is needed is a breakthrough in the stalled inter-Korean relationship. The question is, “From whom the breakthrough should be coming?”

Beyond Classic and Ideological Geopolitics

The “return of geopolitics” is misleading for Korea because it has been a permanent feature on the peninsula since the late nineteenth century. Its division was a direct outcome of the post-World War II geopolitical settlement. The Cold War separated South Korea from the Eurasian continent, making it an artificial island. Nordpolitik has been constrained by ideological geopolitics that has prevailed even after the end of the Cold War. The return of classic geopolitics only makes the new Nordpolitik more complicated. South Korea as a middle power has no advantage in the power play unfolding in Northeast Asia, where major powers, both “dominant” and “revisionist,”24 are vying for influence. To make progress on the Eurasia Initiative, Seoul needs to unleash countervailing forces, such as “markets and non-geopolitical forces at sub-national and trans-national levels of the international system.”25

For further progress on the Eurasia Initiative, first, Seoul should utilize geographical space not as an arena of geopolitical contention, but as a place of cooperation. The northern border areas of North Korea adjoining China and Russia along the Yalu and Tumen rivers are a “geopolitical gateway,”26 an Eurasian bridge on which converge the geo-economic interests of the two Koreas, Russia, China, and Mongolia. Pyongyang made public in November 2013 its plan to develop the northern border area from Sinuiju in the northwest to Rason in the northeast, together with the economic development districts newly designated across the country. Trilateral or quadrilateral economic cooperation involving the two Koreas, China, and Russia in the gateway area will be well received by Beijing and Moscow, as it is closely linked to their own projects of domestic economic development. A plan presented by the Presidential Commission on Architecture Policy deserves attention. It is a blueprint for a multinational city to be constructed jointly by the two Koreas, China, Russia, and Japan as an international free economic zone at the mouth of the Tumen River, where Russia’s Khasan, China’s Fangchan, and North Korea’s Rason are all nearby.27

Second, a network approach would be useful in that it accommodates sub-national actors and local initiatives. Growing numbers of non-state actors, regional bodies, and even influential cities are emerging as important actors in today’s global society. There are attempts in South Korea to forge global inter-city networks, and to link the northern geopolitical gateway to the pan-East Sea economic sphere, encompassing the sea off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, the Russian Far East, the three northeastern provinces of China, and the west coast of Japan. This linkage would have a direct impact on the local economies, promoting a belt of economic collaboration.

South Korea’s local governments have strived to shape such an economic sphere for the past two decades, through the Governors Conference of the East Sea-rim Local Governments (KARTELL: Kangwondo’s Active Role Towards East-Sea Rim’s Local Leader) initiated in 1994 and the Association of Northeast Asia Regional Governments (NEAR) and the Governors and Mayors Council in the East Coastal Area launched in 1996 and 2005, respectively, by the provincial government of Kyungsangbukdo. Local participation and initiatives are notable in China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy. As of January 2015, 20 Chinese local governments had formulated plans, and four of them—Shandung, Qinghai, Heilongjiang, and Hubei—have plans to participate in the strategy in close cooperation with South Korean local counterparts with the purpose of attracting South Korean investments and constructing transport networks. There already exists great room for the Eurasia Initiative to utilize these glocal sub-national initiatives.

Last, but not least, Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang will be the most crucial in advancing its new Nordpolitik. Irritating North Korea with “liberal delusion”28 is of little use in either improving inter-Korean relations or advancing the Eurasian Initiative. The democratic expectations stirred by the “Arab Spring” in 2011 have shattered in all cases except Tunisia. Post-communist transitions demonstrate a sheer diversity of transition paths, rather than convergence.29

Seoul’s North Korea policy should include the North in a way that goes beyond the past practices of isolation and blockade. The engagement policy adopted by Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun also had critical limits, as it was confined to relations between the two Koreas. The new Nordpolitik needs an inclusive policy of minilateral cooperation that goes beyond bilateral engagement. In the predicament of the North Korean nuclear problem, economic cooperation among North and South Korea, China, and Russia in the North Korean northern border area could be a shrewd, if not permanent, alternative to bilateral economic cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang within the framework of the Eurasia Initiative.30 Economic cooperation could spill over to North Korea’s inner areas, first of all, into the designated economic development districts. This is an approach geared towards gradually spreading market forces into North Korean society, joining with the spontaneous market forces there. In order for Seoul to move ahead with its Eurasia Initiative, a breakthrough should come, first of all, from its renewed approach to Pyongyang.


1. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the KNDA or MOFA.

2. Trade statistics are from the Korea International Trade Association.

3. A pivot state, according to Ian Bremmer, is a “nation that is able to avoid capture in terms of security or economy at the hands of a single country and to build profitable relationships with multiple major powers without becoming overly reliant on any one of them. Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World (New York: Penguin, 2012).

4. The three principles are independent, peaceful, and nationally integrative unification. For the full text see the website of the ROK Ministry of Unification at

5. The ROK Ministry of Unification, Peace and Prosperity Policy of the Roh Mu-hyun Participatory Government (Seoul: Ministry of Unification, 2003).

6. Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 3 (May/June 2014).

7. Sung-Won Shin and Taehwan Kim, “The Far East in Russia’s Geopolitical Outlook,” Global Asia 9, no. 3 (Winter 2014).

8. Sputnik International, October 21, 2014,

9. Chosun Ilbo, January 23, 2015.

10. Sputnik International, October 21, 2014,

11. The visits in 2014 include, on the North Korean part, Kim Jong-un’s special envoy Choe Ryong-hae, Defense Minister Hyun Young-cheol, Foreign Affairs Minister Lee Soo-young, Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Young-nam, and on the Russian side, Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yuri Turtnev, President of the Tatarstan Republic Rustam Minnikhanov, and Galushka. It is reported that Kim Jong-un accepted Putin’s invitation to the 70th Anniversary of Victory in World War II in May 2015.

12. Sputnik International, October 21, 2014,

13. Yonhap News, July 4, 2014.

14. For the full text of Park’s Dresden speech, see The Korea Herald, March 28, 2014.

15. The Korea Times, August 18, 2014.

16. The Korea Times, July 14, 2014. The committee consists of two vice presidents representing government offices and private experts, and around 70 members.

17. Chosun Ilbo, January 20, 2015.

18. Chosun Ilbo, January 13, 2015.

19. According to the ROK Ministry of National Defense, the average annual numbers of military provocations were: 13.8 per year in the 1990s, 13.6 in the 2000s, 7 in 2010, 6 in 2011, 2 in 2012, and 9 in 2013. The Ministry of National Defense, 2014 Defense Whitepaper (Seoul: The Ministry of National Defense, 2014).

20. North Korea recently proposed a suspension of its nuclear tests on the condition of a suspension of the Korea-US Joint Military exercises. Its conditions for the reunion of separated families and North-South dialogue include withdrawal of the May 24 measures, resumption of Mt. Kumkang tourism, stoppage of propaganda balloons, and a halt to any discussions on North-South institutional integration. Towards the United States it demands suspension of joint military exercises, repeal of economic sanctions, and a halt to hostility towards North Korea as conditions for its suspension of nuclear tests.

21. According to the Ministry of Unification, the North Korean economy is estimated to have grown by around one percent per annum in 2012-2014.

22. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011).

23. The reformist measures in 2001 began to recede in 2005 with further restraint, beginning around 2007. The currency reform in 2009, however, was of little effect in suppressing markets. As the ill effects reached irrevocable levels, the authorities relaxed their control on markets and finally withdrew a series of market restriction measures in a directive of May 2010.

24. Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics.”

25. Kent E. Calder, “The Traps of Geopolitical Discourse and the Mandate for New Thinking,” Global Asia 9, no. 3 (Fall 2014).

26. Gateways, according to Colin Flint, serve as bridges between realms, regions, or states and play a role in linking different parts of the world by facilitating the exchange of peoples, goods, and ideas. Flint, Introduction to Geopolitics.

27. Chosun Ilbo, December 16, 2014.

28. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (September/October 2014).

29. Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2014: Eurasia’s Rupture with Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2014).

30. Kim Taehwan, “Appropriating Economic Rents: North Korean Pathways to Economic Change,” IFANS Brief (Spring 2014): 137-151.