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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

I Hope Putin Takes Notes

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — When President Vladimir Putin visits South Korea this week, it is unlikely that he will plunge into the crowded streets of Seoul, poking his nose into antique shops while munching on street vendors' roasted silkworms.

There is still no indication that his itinerary will include a shopping trip to the chaos of the Namdaemun Market, a stop to check his e-mail at one of the Internet cafes located on every block or a bullet train ride down to Pusan, one of Asia's great seaports.

But one can't help wishing Putin's South Korean hosts would hustle him out of the government buildings and onto the streets, where he might glimpse the everyday signs of affluence that are mostly absent in the Russian Far East. Putin — who scurried to shore up ties with North Korea during his first six months in office — still shows little grasp of the sea changes that are happening in Asia. Russia's Eastern policy amounts to courting the Chinese in a geopolitical chess game against the United States. Meanwhile, most of Asia (China included) has figured out that power in the coming century will accrue to the wealthy.

Thirty years ago, South Korea's per capita gross domestic product was comparable to those of the poorer countries of Africa, according to the CIA World Factbook. Yet over the past three decades, the nation has undergone a transformation of the sort that Russian desperately needs. Not only has it shed its authoritarian government and elected a former political prisoner as president, its economic growth has been amazing.

As of 1999, South Korea's per capita income of $13,300 soared above Russia's $4,200 figure. Russia has more than three times the population and 173 times the land space as South Korea. By contrast, South Korea has few natural resources, is essentially an island cut off from the Asian mainland by a hostile North, and must cope with an enormous drain on resources as it defends itself against the threat of the world's fifth-largest army.

Yet by creating a safe climate for business, South Korea's annual GDP swelled by 1999 to $625.7 billion — $5.4 billion larger than Russia's. Despite the 1997-99 Asian financial crisis, South Korea's economy grew at a rate of 10 percent in 1999, compared with 3.2 percent in Russia.

These numbers are reflected on the streets. Koreans chatter into mobile phones, eat at T.G.I. Friday's and buy Gap clothes in the boutiques lining streets that turn into glowing canyons of neon at night.

Meanwhile, Vladivostok, the largest city in the Russian Pacific, is a poor cousin. In January, during the coldest winter since 1949, most of the city had little or no heating, and blackouts lasted up to 21 hours a day. Taxes, red tape and extortion attempts by the regional authorities have driven away most foreign investors. Fast-food chains that are common even in communist China (such as Kentucky Fried Chicken) have shied away from the Russian Far East.

Strikingly, South Koreans have been prominent among those willing to invest in the Russian Far East despite former Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko's alleged looting of the Primorye region, where Vladivostok is located. These investors hope trains from Seoul will soon rattle through North Korea to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, linking Seoul and Helsinki through what President Kim Dae-jung calls the "iron silk road." Koreans are eager to build pipelines bringing Russian natural gas through China to Seoul, and they hunger for a taste of the fisheries of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Yet it is hard to be hopeful. Putin recently forced out the single greatest hindrance to the development of the Russian Far East — Governor Nazdratenko, a man feared by foreign investors and hated by his own people — but rather than try the former governor on corruption charges, Putin appointed him to head the State Fisheries Committee. There is no sign that Vladivostok will suddenly welcome foreign investment. Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin's representative to the Far East, last year questioned why Russia should integrate itself into the economies of Asia. "They should integrate into us," he said.

Maybe a stroll through Seoul would give Putin a glimpse of why South Koreans feel they have little to learn from a country that can't even keep the lights burning at night. And one that promotes a governor accused of destroying his region's economy.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.