On November 27, 2017, the eighth Asian regional conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, organized in partnership with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), kicked off in Seoul. At the opening ceremony, the Valdai Club chairman Andrei Bystritskiy said that the Club has been the intellectual flagship of Russia’s “turn to the East” and the construction of a large Eurasian space. He urged all participants to discuss actively not only the numerous existing threats, but also the opportunities for cooperation and “co-creation” between all countries.
Dr. Hyun Jung Taik, President of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, defined the Valdai Club as the “Davos Forum of Russia,” a respected discussion platform, well-known in Asia. Speaking about Asia in modern conditions, Mr. Hyun noted that the 21st century is truly an “Era of Asia”: the region’s economies continue to grow dynamically, with 60% of the world’s population living here, and 35% of the world GDP being created.
The Korean expert suggested discussion of at least two issues. Firstly, the idea to form a Eurasian Arctic Council, which would include Russia and Asian countries interested in economic cooperation in the Arctic. This body could discuss the issues of realizing the potential of the Arctic at the global level, exchanging views on the environment and science. Secondly, Mr. Hyun referred to the idea of preparation for a Korea-EAEU free trade agreement, which is already being actively discussed.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Mr. Song Young-gil, special envoy of the President of Korea on relations with Russia, pointed to the deep historical ties between Russia and Korea and the importance of relations after the change of administration in Seoul. He also spoke about the high importance of bilateral talks between the leaders of Russia and Korea on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Mr. Song called to consider the Korean peninsula not as a conflict zone, but as a platform for cooperation. He stressed the importance of the US factor and the need to restore relations between Moscow and Washington. In the final part of his speech, he once again drew attention to the seriousness of the new administration’s intentions to develop northern economic cooperation, where, according to him, the committee on cooperation with Russia, which has almost been set up, could play an important role. More than 600 large Korean companies have already expressed their desire to cooperate with the committee.
In his substantial address, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov shared his personal views on key issues of the region’s future, pointing out that he would like to see the region unified from the point of view of a common space of security and economy. This is the space of Greater Eurasia from Lisbon to Jakarta. Morgulov noted that it is unfortunately impossible to exclude completely the possibility of an apocalyptic scenario, but also expressed confidence that the common sense would prevail.
According to Morgulov, the concern is first of all caused by the fragmentation of the region, which is the main systemic problem undermining efforts in the sphere of security. This fragmentation is facilitated by the presence of closed military-political blocs – the bloc approach is responsible for the situation and prevents international cooperation. While North Korea ignores the demands of the international community, the US conducts military manoeuvres – all of this leads to a deadlock and threatens peace in the region.
According to Morgulov, it would be naïve to hope that the parties will concede under pressure. And pressure on North Korea in general pushes it to a humanitarian catastrophe. Therefore, from the point of view of the Russian diplomat, there is no alternative to dialogue. And now we need to stop and divert the situation from the dangerous line. First of all, North Korea should renounce carrying out nuclear tests, while the US and the Republic of Korea’s should renounce holding large-scale exercises: a so-called double freeze. If Pyongyang’s restraint is met with positive moves by the United States and South Korea, then a second stage is possible.
At the second stage of the roadmap, offered by Russia, it is necessary to begin direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea. It should be dialogue about the principles of peaceful coexistence. And then the inter-Korean dialogue could begin, with parties definitely having something to discuss. Finally, at the third stage, discussion of the full range of international security issues in Northeast Asia, first of all, denuclearization and general demilitarization, is possible as part of a process involving all the countries interested. Morgulov acknowledged that such negotiations are not an easy and quick process, but they could lead to a breakthrough in multilateral cooperation. Turning to the issues of economic cooperation and development, the deputy foreign minister drew attention to protectionism, attempts to bypass the rules of the international trading system and the growing general fragmentation of international economic governance in the region and the world. He noted that now it is necessary to make the economic growth comprehensive. For example, the Greater Eurasian Partnership, initiated by Russia and supported by China, is open to all. Morgulov also stressed that the path of discovery and joint creativity is the way that can lead our common region to development and prosperity.
During the first session, which was held behind closed doors, participants in the regional conference discussed the issues of regional security. On the whole, experts were not optimistic about the general trends of development of the regional situation and prospects of solving the key problem, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme. Experts highlighted the systemic problem of discrepancy between words and deeds of the leading global and regional actors. It was noted that external actors play a decisive role for the balance of powers in the region, and that asymmetry of capabilities is aggravating at the same time. The role of power is growing and the region is likely to see even more militarization in the future. As for North Korea, the inevitability of recognition of its nuclear status is recognized either openly or indirectly.