Why South Korea’s media are furious with Vladimir Putin

November 14, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a news conference in Seoul with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. (Jung Yeon-Je-pool/Getty Images)

A number of media outlets in South Korea are fuming at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has apparently proved a bit of a hassle for his Korean counterparts during his ongoing visit to the country. Most egregiously, Putin arrived a full half-hour late for a meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

It matters, for two primary reasons, that the South Korean media are showing open anger at Putin for the perceived slight. First, it's not going to help public opinion in the country concerning Moscow, at a time when Putin's Russia is trying to extend its diplomatic and economic influence in Northeast Asia. Second, it's possible that the stories may reflect a degree of unhappiness with Putin on the part of the Seoul government. Read between the lines of this story in Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea's most influential daily newspapers, and you can see strong hints that government sources are complaining:

Russian President Vladimir Putin behaved erratically during his visit to Seoul on Wednesday, arriving 30 minutes late for a summit with President Park Geun-hye and making several last-minute changes to his itinerary.

Seoul and Moscow agreed on Nov. 1 that Putin would visit Korea this Tuesday and Wednesday, but Russia informed the Korean government on Nov. 4 that Putin wanted a change in schedule, shortening the trip to a single-day visit.

That means the government had to give invited guests for the official luncheon short notice that it had been moved.

The Russians gave no clear reason for the change in schedule.

The story goes on and on like that, chronicling, with surprising detail, the Putin camp's every slight toward their South Korean counterparts. Meanwhile, Putin did manage to show up for a ceremony awarding him an honorary black belt in tae kwon do, which tells you something about his personal priorities.

A column in the Korea Times went many steps further, angrily chastising Putin for having insulted Park and South Korea generally. It detailed more slights, quoting a "source" who described diplomatic insults perpetrated on  this and prior trips. A Korean university professor quoted in the story predicted it would set back the two countries' relationship.

Showing up late is considered rude and insulting in any context, but it's particularly egregious in presidential diplomacy. Cultivating positive personal ties with your fellow heads of state is sort of low-hanging fruit; it's pretty easy to do, and the consequences can be quite severe if you mess it up. (See, for example, President Obama damaging U.S.-German ties by personally offending Chancellor Angela Merkel with an NSA tap on her cellphone.) There's pretty good evidence that Putin's lateness in South Korea was no accident: The Russian president has a long and well-catalogued history of upsetting foreign leaders by making them wait around for him.

For Putin to risk angering South Korea's president just to grab a half-hour for himself seems like a very poor cost-benefit calculation by the Russian leader. He has much more to lose than to gain. But it makes more sense if we hypothesize that Putin either doesn't understand this -- doesn't see how much he's setting back his country's diplomacy, in other words -- or he just doesn't care. Either way, it suggests that Putin's Russia is not very good at developing soft power -- an area where its track record is perhaps even worse than China's. Don't hold out too much hope for Russia's plan to develop an "Iron Silk Road Express," its name for expanding trade with the two Koreas and its latest big political-economic outreach mission, previous versions of which have fallen apart.

Keep this in mind as you read about Moscow's push to displace U.S. influence in the Middle East.

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Max Fisher | November 14, 2013