Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Yonhap News Agency (South Korea), Moscow, September 29, 2020
Question: On September 30, 2020, the Republic of Korea and Russia will mark 30 years of diplomatic relations. What is your view of their current state and prospects? Are there any plans for President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Republic of Korea in the near future?
Sergey Lavrov: Having started basically from scratch, over the past 30 years, our countries have accumulated substantial experience in productive cooperation in politics, trade, the economy, science, technology, humanitarian sphere and other areas. Today we can confirm with confidence that we are bound by truly neighbourly, friendly relations based not only on mutually beneficial practical cooperation but also on the affinity between ordinary Russians and South Koreans.
The two countries have established a regular political dialogue, including at the highest level. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to Russia on June 21‒23, 2018, was an important event. We are going to start discussing issues related to President Vladimir Putin’s possible visit to the Republic of Korea as the sanitary and epidemiological situation normalises.
The Republic of Korea is among Russia’s key trade and economic partners. Our bilateral trade is approaching the milestone of $25 billion.
We attach particular importance to the cooperation within the Russian-Korean Interregional Cooperation Forum, which will be held for the third time in the Republic of Korea next year.
Our cultural and humanitarian ties are developing actively. Outstanding performers of classical music, Russian theatres and ballets tour your country invariably with great success.
We are strengthening tourist exchanges. Last year, over 270,000 Russians visited South Korea and around 430,000 Koreans travelled to Russia. This steady growth of tourist flows is largely due to the 2014 Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Republic of Korea on Mutual Visa Waiver.
We scheduled a large-scale joint project, the Year of Mutual Exchanges, to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the events under this project had to be postponed. However, we are still looking forward to holding them in 2021.
Question: Despite the fact that, since the establishment of diplomatic relations, cooperation between the two countries has developed consistently and we have achieved certain progress, many note that the potential of this cooperation has not been fully realised yet. In your opinion, what do both parties need to do in order to realise this potential to the full extent?
Sergey Lavrov: I agree that we have not fully taken advantage of all the available opportunities over the past three decades.
One of the bottlenecks in our bilateral economic links is their investment component. For example, Russia is currently implementing only seven projects in Russia’s Far East, worth a total of 2.4 billion roubles, using the resources of South Korean companies. At the same time, we have noted an outflow of South Korean capital from Russian regions in the past years. In my opinion, the preferential capital investment regime, currently in place in Siberia and Russia’s Far East, offers good opportunities for reversing the negative trends. The priority development areas and the Free Port of Vladivostok offer foreign investors, including investors from South Korea, some of the best conditions in the Asia-Pacific Region when it comes to such industries as healthcare, port infrastructure, ship maintenance, tourism and agriculture. Many of these industries are included in the Nine Bridges, the nine priority areas of trade and economic cooperation between our countries proposed by President Moon Jae-in in 2017.
I must also mention the potential of trilateral economic cooperation between Russia, South Korea and North Korea that remains unfulfilled. Our country has continuously supported initiatives involving the three countries, including the integration of Korean railways with the Trans-Siberian Mainline, as well as transit supplies of pipeline gas and electricity to South Korea via North Korea. These projects not only serve the economic interests of the three countries but can also make a sizeable contribution to strengthening peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
We believe it is important to launch practical measures in this area and not wait until the international sanctions against North Korea are lifted. The first step could be the establishment of transit shipments of Russian coal via the port in Rajin to the Republic of Korea involving interested South Korean companies under the Khasan‒Rajin project – considering that this project has been released from the UNSC sanctions.
Question: The talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula ended in a deadlock in February 2019, after the failure of the Hanoi summit between Kim Jong-un– and Donald Trump. How, in your opinion, can the negotiating process be moved off the dead centre? What measures should each of the sides involved take?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia has been invariably in favour of continuing the general negotiating process to resolve the entire set of problems on the Korean Peninsula, including the nuclear issue. We were supporting the efforts undertaken by Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington to normalise the intra-Korean and US-North Korean relations and were assisting our partners in the context of their constructive initiatives.
At the same time, it is important to pass from words to deeds and to the practical implementation of the agreements that have been reached. There were many of them in past years: The Joint Statement by the DPRK and US leaders in Singapore, and the Panmunjom and Pyongyang declarations by President Moon Jae-in and DPRK State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un. Regrettably, when it came to implementing their provisions, it turned out that the sides were not ready for that. There were demands to “take the first step” or make additional concessions, as well as requests to put off the implementation of “as yet unrealisable,” for some or other reasons, points. Quite logically, this has caused a certain loss of interest in subsequent contacts.
Nevertheless, the situation around the Korean Peninsula remains relatively stable and the states involved are not refusing to engage in a dialogue. We continue efforts to convince the partners to simultaneously take so far small, if real, steps towards each other. We are convinced that South and North Koreas, just as the US and the DPRK, should focus on normalising bilateral relations and strengthening mutual trust rather than attempt to solve the entire backlog of the subregion’s old problems all at once and entirely between themselves. The latter is a task for all the states involved and it can only be achieved by joint effort, given a respectful attitude to each other’s legitimate interests. The well-known Russian initiatives on Korean settlement are aimed at getting this multilateral work started.
Question: In 2017, Russia and China drafted a roadmap for a comprehensive settlement of the Korean Peninsula’s problems and encouraged all negotiating parties to implement it. Last year they proposed a new, improved initiative on this issue. Can you speak about the details of the ideas in this action plan?
What is the negotiating parties’ attitude to it? Does Russia still believe that international sanctions against North Korea should be eased to make the resumption of negotiations possible?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, in 2017 the foreign ministries of Russia and China issued a joint statement that included the main provisions of the proposed roadmap for the settlement of the Korean Peninsula’s problems and invited all the other concerned countries to join in its implementation. Although the United States, the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Japan refrained from officially joining in the implementation of our initiative, it can be said that the subsequent events largely followed the path set out in this Russian-Chinese document. The first proposal put forth in the joint statement calls on North Korea to announce a moratorium on the testing of nuclear explosive devices and ballistic missile tests, and on the United States and the Republic of Korea to refrain from large-scale joint exercises. The second proposal calls for developing regular bilateral contacts in order to normalise relations between the United States and North Korea and between the two Korean states.
Despite certain problems on these negotiating tracks, we believe that, in principle, we have approached the third stage in the implementation of that document, that is, the resumption of multilateral cooperation aimed at resolving the entire complex of the Korean Peninsula’s problems. Guided by this logic, in 2019 we launched the development of an action plan in which we outlined the future joint moves of the concerned states in four dimensions: military, political, economic and humanitarian. We believe that steps can be taken simultaneously so as to achieve progress in the settlement of various problems without artificially linking them to each other. These moves can entail efforts in various formats. For example, we believe that it is the Korean states themselves that must find the final political solution to the Korean Peninsula’s problems with UN assistance. Given the comprehensive nature of the document, all these actions can complement each other, allowing the concerned parties to move forward together despite difficulties that may arise in any sphere.
By the way, one of measures proposed in that document is the gradual lifting of sanctions against North Korea. We do not believe that negotiations should be suspended, because there is no alternative to them, but we can also understand the reasoning of our North Korean partners. The said UN Security Council restrictions were adopted after Pyongyang held nuclear tests and test launched long-range missiles. When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced a striving for denuclearisation and proclaimed a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in 2018 – and he is still complying with it, we should have acted constructively to meet Pyongyang halfway, including by gradually easing the sanctions.
I would like to note that our colleagues have shown interest in the new Russian-Chinese initiative. They readily discussed it and put forth their own ideas regarding this problem. Of course, it was extremely difficult to include different and sometimes diametrically opposing views in one document. However, we worked with our Chinese partners to revise the roadmap so as to take into account the views of Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang. We forwarded the revised version to the concerned countries late last year. The coronavirus pandemic has had a great impact on our work on the new draft document, but we, just as our other partners, are resolved to resume it when we can relaunch full-scale contacts.
Question: In what way can the Republic of Korea and Russia collaborate amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Sergey Lavrov: The pandemic has highlighted the importance of more active bilateral contacts in healthcare. The international community has expressed its appreciation for the efforts taken by the Republic of Korea’s Government to contain the spread of the coronavirus infection. In Russia we are working energetically to control the spread of the novel coronavirus infection as well. I am sure that both sides would benefit from exchanging their experience in combating infectious diseases.
Regrettably, the pandemic has changed our bilateral exchange plans. Some events, including the celebration of the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, had to be postponed until epidemiological normalisation. However, modern information and communication technology allows us continue to communicate with our partners, as is evident from the bilateral events held online, including the intersessional meeting of the co-chairs of the Russian-Korean Joint Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, which is to take place in late October. Since the Republic of Korea is a partner country of the Open Innovations International Forum in Moscow, we hope that South Korean representatives will attend the forum’s sessions. In other words, important bilateral issues can be addressed in a planned manner even in the current complicated conditions.
I hope that the agreement reached recently to resume regular flights will help bring our bilateral ties to the pre-crisis level in the near future. Our plans for next year include, in addition to the Cross Year of Mutual Exchanges I have mentioned, the implementation of events planned within the framework of the Cross Year of Cultural Exchanges coordinated between our culture ministries, as well as the Russian Seasons project in the Republic of Korea.