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Russia's two-faced diplomacy

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By Shim Jae-yun

Russia, which is now embracing North Korea, has received plenty of flak for assuming a diplomatically discourteous attitude toward South Korea. This may prompt a need for Seoul to more efficiently cope with the ever warming relations and increasing cooperation – including military ties among others – between the two autocracies.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova triggered the bilateral wrangling after describing President Yoon Suk Yeol's recent remarks on North Korea as "blatantly biased" and "odious." She cannot evade criticism for mobilizing such an exorbitantly rude expression. It is completely inappropriate for a ministry spokesperson to fire salvos at the head of state of the counterpart country using such impolite language. Earlier, Yoon described the North as "the world's only country and an irrational group that first specified the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in its Constitution."

In reaction, Seoul's Foreign Ministry labeled the spokeswoman's statement as "below standard, disrespectful and hateful." It summoned Georgy Zinoviev, the Russian Ambassador to Korea, to convey a formal protest. Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won expressed strong regret that Russia had attempted to unconditionally protect North Korea while ignoring the truth. "Criticizing the leader's remark with such rude, ignorant and biased words is very regrettable and will only aggravate the relations between South Korea and Russia," he said.

Perplexing enough, Zakharova's remarks came at a time when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of the Asia-Pacific region, Andrey Rudenko, was visiting Seoul to discuss bilateral relations and the Ukraine war. The Russian official's visit drew attention as it was the first of its kind since Yoon Suk Yeol was inaugurated.

It held significance, offering a chance for direct communication between the two countries amid warming ties between North Korea and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to visit the North in return for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's visit to the Far East of Russia in September last year.

Yet the efforts to make progress in relations were overshadowed by the spokeswoman's remarks. Russia's attempt to support North Korea has gone too far in that its leader Kim recently ramped up threats against the South, designating the South as the most hostile country to it and vowing its annihilation. He has been stepping up military provocations against the South by test-firing solid-fuel supersonic ballistic missiles, for instance.

Russia's two-faced diplomacy demonstrates Putin has been cornered into a desperate situation in his bid to continue the war in Ukraine. Being isolated in the international community, Russia has been frenetic in bolstering its supply of weapons and ammunition from North Korea. Given this, Russia has clearly sided with the North. Yet, on the other hand, Russia has also been eager to mend soured ties with South Korea.

In an exclusive interview with The Korea Times on Jan. 19, Ambassador Zinoviev expressed hope for Korean companies to return to Russia. He also cited South Korea as Russia's most favorable country among the unfavorable countries of the world.

Regarding different countries' views on the Republic of Korea (ROK), Russia (91 percent) topped the list of 16 countries in the world with a positive view of the country in 2020, followed by India, Brazil and Thailand according to a survey conducted by the Korea Culture and Information Service.

Russians favor ROK enterprises such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai Motor along with Korean ramyeon (instant noodles) and confectionery items. "Paldo-dosirak" cup ramyeon is particularly popular. Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently unsuccessfully called on Russia's Supreme Court to abolish regulations on meals (and also possession of books) for prisoners so he would be free to eat Korean Paldo-dosirak ramyeon at his leisure.

Despite the current standoff between Seoul and Moscow, especially involving Pyongyang, the two nations need to double down on efforts to improve bilateral relations through dialogue. Expanded exchanges of people and cultural programs will help facilitate such efforts.

Given this, the plan for concerts here by Russia's world-famous Bolshoi Ballet set for April can be a very precious opportunity to mend relations. The two governments should fully extend possible support for the cultural event to attract more attention and lay the groundwork to improve bilateral ties.

Russia needs to take a more humble and sincere attitude toward South Korea. Assuming an arrogant and dubious attitude will not help bring South Korea closer to its side. Seoul's diplomatic authorities should more squarely and prudently deal with Russia to maximally protect national interests and prevent the thawing of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang from posing further security threats to the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region.

Shim Jae-yun


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