More than hot air: Russian gas pipeline may unite Korean Peninsula

The construction of a gas pipeline between Russia and South Korea via communist North Korea will promote an atmosphere of trust between Seoul and Pyongyang, say Russian political analysts.

­A visit to Russia by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may set the stage for a thaw in North and South Korean relations, as well as promote much-needed dialogue over North Korea’s nuclear program, said Georgy Toloraya, the research program director at the Centre for Modern Korean Studies, Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

“The upcoming talks between the Russian and North Korean leaders are important. The six-party consultations may resume, as the North Koreans said they were ready to resume negotiations and discus the nuclear program.  Furthermore, it will be more difficult to ignore any signal that Kim Jong-il gives to the international community if it is done with the support of Dmitry Medvedev.”

The reclusive North Korean leader entered Russian territory on Saturday aboard his personal train. It is his first visit to Russia in nine years, and comes at a time of deepening economic hardship for the internationally isolated communist country he presides over.

It should be noted that Il-Jong’s Russia trip comes less than three months after he paid a visit to China, which was his third trip there in one year, making 2011 his busiest year of foreign travel in his 17 years as the North Korean leader.
Toloraya says this may be the best time to bring Pyongyang back into the global fold, possibly ending its isolation from the international community.

“If Russia supports the initiative [on resuming the six-party talks] and guarantees that North Koreans is seeking to discuss this problem, it will be more difficult for Seoul and Washington to scuttle the dialogue,” the Russian expert said, as quoted by Itar-Tass.

Large scale economic projects, like the construction of a gas pipeline between Russia and South Korea via the DPRK; the linking up of the Trans-Korean railway with the Trans-Siberian line; the construction of a transmission line from the Far East to the Republic of Korea, can serve as motivating factors in rejuvenating relations between the two countries.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs journal, said that South Korea should be willing to endorse such an economic project.

“The whole atmosphere in the two Koreas can potentially change with the implementation of these economic projects,” Lukyanov told RT. “There are very strong political and economic reasons for endorsing it.”

Lukyanov added that the United States, which has a military presence in South Korea, should have no objections to the plan.

”Washington should be interested in any project that leads to the stabilization of the region,” he said. “It is not against their interests.”

In early August, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said negotiations over the construction of a gas pipeline, as well as other large economic projects, were given special attention.

After the talks with his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan, Lavrov said, “The tripartite projects [involving Russia, South Korea and the DPRK] were discussed at the talks. The projects’ key purpose is to build a gas pipeline from Russia to the Republic of Korea via the DPRK, as well as a power line, and to link Korea Railways to the Trans-Siberian Railway.”

Toloraya then mentioned a gas project with Gazprom, which is looking to bring Seoul into the deal.

“Gazprom’s project has been approved by North Korea. Pyongyang is also ready to take part in the project jointly with the South Koreans despite their strained relations,” he said. “The South Koreans agree in principle though they voice concerns over North Korea’s possible dependability, including illegal gas extraction and blackmail,” he said.

“The pipeline will guarantee the restoration and strengthening of trust between the North and the South,” Toloraya continued. “The economic development of North Korea will become one more argument for stopping the nuclear program.”

“Whether the North Koreans dialogue with the South and the United States is unfruitful, the talks between Dmitry Medvedev and Kim Jong-il are an important foreign political event. Russia can play a positive role in overcoming the crisis,” the expert said.

The world’s largest natural gas producer is seeking to expand its presence in Asia, and has been supplying liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the South Korean market since the Sakhalin-2 project went online in the Pacific in 2009.

Most of the Sakhalin-2 gas, however, is sent directly to Japan. This reality is forcing Gazprom to find a cost-effective strategy for boosting its South Korean supplies due to Pyongyang’s political isolation.

Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul collapsed in November when North Korea launched scores of artillery shells at a South Korean island, killing dozens of South Koreans. The two Koreas are still technically at war, and have only recently signed a truce to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

Meanwhile, North Korea on Tuesday expelled all remaining South Korean workers from a stalled joint tourism resort in the North.

The resort’s South Korean operator says that 14 South Korean and two Korean-Chinese workers at the Diamond Mountain resort returned home on Tuesday. Pyongyang ordered them to leave on Monday.

The communist nation is upset that South Korea has not restarted the joint tour venture since its closure following a 2008 shooting death of a southern tourist there.

At the same time, North Korean officials announced it would remove all South Korean material assets at the resort.

This latest development begs the question: if North and South Korea cannot find a way to cooperate on a tourist resort, how will they ever cooperate on something as significant as a gas supply route between their territories?

This is where Russian diplomacy, not to mention its preponderant supply of much-needed natural resources in a region that is enjoying an economic boom, can certainly make a world of difference.

Robert Bridge, RT

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