(Yonhap Interview) Russia’s top envoy stresses managing relations stably with S. Korea amid soured ties

SEOUL, Russia does not want bilateral relations with South Korea to "hit rock bottom" and sees it essential to keep the status quo to prevent further escalation, its top envoy to Seoul has said, as the two countries remain at odds over the war in Ukraine, North Korea and other issues. Ambassador Georgy Zinoviev made the remarks as bilateral relations between the two countries have become strained since Russia's war in Ukraine and more recently with the growing military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow. Russia has designated South Korea as one of its "unfriendly nations" for joining U.S.-led economic sanctions in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. For Seoul, Russia's expanding military ties with the North have stoked fresh security concerns. South Korea, the United States and other countries suspect the North is providing Russia with weapons for use in the war in Ukraine, in return for Moscow's help in weapons technologies, a claim denied by Russia. "Our bilateral relations are not as good as we hope them to be, but at the same time, have not hit rock bottom either," Zinoviev said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday. "Our top priority is to maintain and stabilize the bilateral relations that we have, prevent the ties from exacerbating to a confrontational level and refrain from taking actions that can cause further deterioration," he said through an interpreter. "By doing so, I believe that we can create the conditions to bring the relationship back to a constructive and normal trajectory." Zinoviev, the first new Russian ambassador to Seoul in more than five years, took up his post in early January. His remarks came only days after Seoul and Moscow exchanged harsh words over Russia's criticism of President Yoon Suk Yeol's comments about North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons development and its arms trade with Russia. Maria Zakharova, Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman, lashed out at Yoon's remarks as "blatantly biased" and "odious," blaming the U.S. and its allies for the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul hit back at Moscow in a rare and strong-worded statement, saying that her "rude" remarks amount to an "abhorrent sophistry" that disregards reality. The foreign ministry in Seoul summoned Zinoviev to lodge a protest. Zakharova's commentary dismayed Seoul as it was made public late last week when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko was visiting South Korea for talks with Seoul officials. Without adding comments, the ambassador took note of the fact that the dialogue is still taking place between the two sides despite the circumstances. "I think it's better to communicate even if it is difficult than to have no communication at all," Zinoviev said. The tensions between South Korea and Russia surfaced late last month when Moscow warned of a "complete breakdown" of relations with Seoul in reference to Defense Minister Shin Won-sik's remarks about "personally supporting" the idea of full support to Ukraine, including military aid. Russia regards s uch weapons provisions to Kyiv as a "red line" that Seoul must not cross. Zinoviev emphasized that South Korea's stance of only providing Ukraine with humanitarian assistance has been instrumental in maintaining ties. "This stance of South Korea is very important," he said. "Because Korea is sticking to this position, we are able to maintain bilateral relations at this level," he said. Regarding the unfriendly nations' list, Zinoviev called for Seoul to remove the sanctions against Russia in order for it to strike South Korea off the list. In December, South Korea tightened its export controls on Moscow for dual-use items that can be diverted for military purposes. "These kinds of decisions do not help maintain the level of our substantive bilateral cooperation," he said. "The minimum requirement for relieving South Korea of the unfriendly nation status is (for Seoul) to revoke its sanctions against Russia." On Russia's deepening relations with North Korea, the ambassador repeated his country's position denying any military cooperation. "The accusations about Russia-North Korea military cooperation are groundless and unverified. We have the right to develop our friendly relationship with North Korea," he added. In spite of the difficulties, Zinoviev said he will make efforts during his term to help make positive progress with South Korea, a country with which Russia shares "a long and rich history." "This is a relationship that did not begin 33 years ago when the two countries established diplomatic relations, but has been maintained for much longer," he said, referring to the first bilateral commerce treaty that dates back to 1884. "I hope that in the future, there will be many traces of happy events rather than sad events in the history of our bilateral relations," Zinoviev said. "Russia is ready to take that path, but we also need the same mindset from Korean officials." Source: Yonhap News Agency