September 28, 2008

South Korean Agency Previews President’s Visit to Russia

Text of report in English by South Korean news agency Yonhap

[Yonhap headline: "(News Focus) Korea-Russia Summit Focuses on Economic Cooperation, Regional Security" by Yoo Cheong-mo]

Seoul, Sept. 28 (Yonhap) - Embarking on his first trip to Russia as head of South Korea on Sunday, President Lee Myung-bak [Yi Myo'ng- pak] has three broad goals in mind - the upgrade of bilateral relations, energy and resource diplomacy and a constructive Russian role towards North Korean denuclearization, diplomatic watchers here say.

Lee's Russian trip, scheduled to continue through Tuesday, caps off his summit diplomacy with all four superpowers surrounding the Korean Peninsula, as he has already visited the US, Japan and China in the months after his Feb. 25 inauguration.

Through his meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian government and business leaders, Lee will seek to significantly enhance South Korean-Russian relations across the board, including economy, commerce, diplomacy, politics and regional security, watchers say.

Considering Russia's status as the world's most resource-rich country, Lee, an advocate of energy and resource diplomacy, is expected to hold concrete discussions on South Korea's long-term and stable imports of Russian natural gas and other natural resources, they note.

Lee and Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as the president of Russia on May 7, already met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Japan in early July and produced broad agreements on cooperation in energy and resource trade, the denuclearization of North Korea and the connection of the trans-Korean railway with Russia's trans- Siberian railway, known as the TSR.

With the brief July meeting regarded as an informal summit, Lee and Medvedev are expected to engage in serious discussions on the development of their bilateral relationship at their summit in Moscow, slated for Monday.

"The focal points of Lee's visit to the US and Japan in April were strengthening of the alliances and restoration of trust, while his Chinese trip in May was also meant to restore and upgrade Seoul- Beijing relations. In Russia, Lee will focus on upgrading mutual cooperation," said an official at the presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae [ROK Office of the President].

"Reflecting growing global concern about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il [Kim Cho'ng-il] and the North's nuclear brinkmanship, Lee and Medvedev will also discuss ways to coordinate their responses to possible abrupt changes in the North Korean leadership and nuclear programme," said the official.

Russia, which is competing with China for greater influence over Northeast Asia, is expected to seek closer information-sharing and policy coordination with South Korea on North Korean matters.

The two leaders will also discuss how to salvage the six-nation talks on disabling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, as the communist North is now on the brink of restarting its nuclear weapons programme, which was shut down in July last year under a landmark disarmament deal with South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.

Pyongyang last week told the International Atomic Energy Agency it will start work to resume plutonium reprocessing at its Yongbyon complex, and barred IAEA inspectors from the reprocessing plant.

"At the Moscow summit, Lee and Medvedev are expected to evaluate both sides' efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and discuss closer cooperation in resolving the North Korean nuclear stalemate," an official at Seoul's Foreign Ministry said.

"President Lee will also explain his policy bid to resume dialogue with North Korea to help speed up North Korea's denuclearization, openness and economic reform, among other things," he said.

Diplomats and Korea experts in Moscow also have high expectations for Lee's Russian visit.

"Russia is not on good terms with the US and Western countries due to the Georgian war and other contentious issues. Russia is in need of a new partner, and South Korea could be one," said Evgeny Bajanov, a Moscow-based expert on diplomatic affairs.

"The relations between S outh Korea and Russia are always important economically and politically. The Russian economy is now rapidly growing, while South Korea is looking for a new global partner and Russia will be its attractive market," he said.

On the occasion of the summit talks, the two countries plan to seal a total of 13 MOUs calling for strategic partnership relationships in the fields of energy, resources, investment, industrial technology and information technology, according to Lee's aides.

The proposed MOUs will cover joint exploration of petroleum, uranium and other natural resources, construction of a Korea-only industrial complex near Moscow and exchanges between science and technology institutions of both sides, they said.

Specifically, South Korean and Russian ministries in charge of energy policy will agree to hold regular meetings for strategic cooperation in the development of Russian natural resources, while the Korea National Oil Corp. will conduct a joint feasibility study on mines in the Russian Republic of Kalmykia.

In addition, a consortium of Korea Electric Power Corp., Korea Resources Corp. and LG International will participate in uranium mine development projects to be carried out by a subsidiary of the Russian entity AtomRed-MetZoloto, known as ARMZ.

Seoul's Knowledge Economy Ministry will sign an MOU with the Moscow State Government on the creation of a Korea-only industrial park on the outskirts of the Russian capital, which will house about 30 Korean plants in the initial phase.

Two-way trade between South Korea and Russia surged from US$4.18 billion in 2003 to $15.06 billion in 2007, representing annual average growth of 38 per cent.

South Korea's investment in Russia as of June this year totalled $1.5 billion, or 1 per cent of the aggregate foreign investment in Russia. But South Korean investment in Russia has been rapidly growing in recent years, with a 3.6-fold increase reported last year.

"Lee is the first incumbent South Korean president to visit Russia in his inaugural year," said Yevgeny Kim, a researcher at a Russian institute on the Far Eastern region.

"Both countries are strengthening cooperation in the energy fields. But the cooperation should proceed on a give-and-take basis. If South Korea wants Russian energy, Russian companies should be given chances to participate in the projects."

Originally published by Yonhap news agency, Seoul, in English 0003 28 Sep 08.

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