Asia-Pacific

Russia Attempts to Bring Koreas Together

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shakes hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev near the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude on Aug. 24.

In a move that surprised international observers, Kim Jong-il, the military leader and dictator of communist North Korea, indicated readiness to return back to the six-party talks, from which it withdrew in 2005, on the settlement of the nuclear problem in the Korean peninsula without preconditions.

The highly impoverished country walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993 and conducted successful nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Reports indicated that North Korea had become a "fully fledged nuclear power," a view shared by then-Director of International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammad El Baradei. The isolated country had also, in the recent past, adopted a confrontational position against the United States and accused it of attempting to foment unrest in the region through its support to South Korea. However, the present announcement is a welcome move and is considered to be the positive impact of Russia's diplomatic intervention in the matter.

Russia has made several proposals, to bring North Korea out of its isolation, in sectors as varied and diverse as gas, electricity and railway lines and to restart non-proliferation talks. The most prominent of them, in terms of immediate and visible financial benefits is the proposed natural gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea. Korea Gas Corp., the world's biggest importer of liquefied natural gas, and Russian gas-export monopoly OAO Gazprom have been trying to identify a supply route since at least 2003, and have come to the conclusion that the most economical among the viable options is an underground pipeline through North Korea.

In addition to this, during the recent talks between Kim Jong-il and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, the two leaders also discussed settling the $11 billion debt that North Korea owes to Russia. Russia firmly believes that the key to ending the Korean nuclear standoff lies in engagement, not isolation. After the meeting with Kim Jong-il, Medvedev said, "As regards the gas cooperation, there are results. We have directed our ministries to set up an ad hoc commission to determine the specific parameters of bilateral cooperation on gas transit via North Korea and, therefore, to get the Republic of Korea to join this project."

This announcement has provided a platform for breaking the ice between the two Koreas, as any overture from North Korea about getting back to the six-nation talks with Russian backing will not be ignored by the international community. As a win-win proposal, the gas pipeline will meet almost 20 percent of South Korea's energy needs and provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the beleaguered North Korean economy in the form of transit fees. If that were not enough, Russia gets to gain significantly in the short term—as it can diversify its markets for supply from the Sakhalin oil fields and place competitive pressure on China, which has been delaying the price negotiations with Gazprom—and in the long term by bringing stability to the Korean peninsula, which Russia sees as its diplomatic backyard.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has endorsed the idea and has said, "North Korea and Russia are in talks and we are also in talks with Russia. There will be a point where the three parties reach an agreement." Despite this acknowledgement and professed interest, all is not rosy with the project. While the project may cut down costs drastically, experts point out that the project itself may cost around $3 billion. There are also deep apprehensions about the vulnerability of having supplies piped through North Korea, which might attempt to use it as a chokepoint in case of a conflict in the future.

It needs to be mentioned that the Korean War, though practically fought for a little over three years, is technically going on even today, as no peace treaty or truce was signed in 1953 to end the conflict. There is only a mutually agreed ceasefire, which hangs by a thin thread. Any future altercations, be they economic over the transit fees, or strategic in the form of the continuing border dispute, might throw a dampener in Russia's hope for peace in the peninsula. In addition, the powerful and mostly radical military of the North is likely to oppose any move to have a pipeline running through the country to feed South Korean industries. It would also have to relocate sensitive facilities along the route of the pipeline. Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Seoul's Dongguk University said, "Under the current situation, the pipeline project appears to be no more than a pipe dream. But it could also serve as a pathway to bring the two Koreas closer."

Though the current situation has many thorns, Russia is going all out to bring North Korea out of its isolation. The gas pipeline project, with all its baggage, is not the only one in the works. Russia has proposed plans for the linking up of the Trans-Korean railway with the Trans-Siberian line and the construction of a transmission line from the Far East to South Korea passing through North Korea. These projects are less intrusive and less expensive than the gas pipeline project and may very well serve to integrate the North with the South.

But, for all these projects to fructify, the two Koreas should attempt to ease tensions and reduce apprehensions in the region about North Korea's nuclear program. Efforts made in isolation to bring North Korea to the negotiating table would be of little use if they are not accompanied by incentives to the battered economy of the country. This is where Russian diplomacy, fuelled quite literally by its ready availability of natural resources, can make a huge difference in a region that is enjoying an economic boon. Russia has been making all the right steps of late. It is now up to the two Koreas to decide whether their future lies in starving each other—one for fuel and the other for food itself—or in peace and stability that can bring prosperity to the whole region.

        

Jeysundhar D is a blogger and freelance political analyst from India. He blogs at jeys-abode.blogspot.com and jeysmallworld.blogspot.com.

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