Pipeline politics in Kim's Russia visit
By Sunny Lee
SEOUL - North Korea leader Kim Jong-il's trip to Russia this week has been cast
as simple aid-seeking mission, but both sides appear to have a grander
strategy. While Pyongyang aims to extricate itself from China's ever-increasing
influence by inching closer to the Kremlin, Russia is eyeing lucrative gas and
oil pipeline links through the North to South Korea.
"The king is old and ill. The prince is young and inexperienced. The kingdom is
running out of food. Sensing his days are numbered, the king takes an arduous
journey to personally ask old friends for aid." This is how North Korea leader
Kim Jong-il's trip is viewed by many in South Korea and around the world.
However, this ignores another narrative, that of Pyongyang trying
to wean itself of its economic dependence on China.
"The relationship between China and North Korea is not necessarily so smooth,"
Han Suk-hee, an expert on China-North Korea relations at Seoul's Yonsei
University, told Asia Times Online. "The primary purpose of Kim's visit to
Russia is to check against China's growing influence, by strengthening its ties
The Dear Leader arrived in Russia's Far East on Saturday and will meet with
President Dmitry Medvedev during a week-long visit. While the Kremlin may
welcome improved ties with Pyongyang at the expense of the latter's links with
Beijing, present-day realities mean Medvedev likely places greater importance
on links with Seoul.
In the lead-up to Kim's visit, North Korea's official media hinted that the
trip would be auspicious. It said that when Kim's train entered Russia on a
previous visit "in drought-stricken Siberia, suddenly it began to rain". Kim
Jong-il visited Moscow in 2001, and Russia's Far East in 2002, both at the
invitation of then Russian president (now prime minister) Vladimir Putin.
While similarly auspicious benefits for Russia may yet be realized from the
trip, North Korea has already benefited with Russia announcing on August 8 that
it would send 50,000 tons of grain to North Korea to help it cope with food
shortages after devastating floods. Some of the food arrived in North Korea on
Friday, one day before Kim's departure.
"It the biggest aid package Russia offered to North Korea in the past two
decades," noted Zhu Feng, a security expert at Peking University in Beijing.
Russia's goodwill gesture ahead of the Kim-Medvedev summit suggests the bigger
economic package Moscow is expected to sign with North Korea this week will be
significant. The size of the deal will be keenly watched and compared to the
deal Kim Jong-il made with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his trip to China
At that time, China offered North Korea various economic incentives, notably
agreeing to jointly develop two special economic zones near their border areas.
However, some say Beijing's deepening economic inroads have irritated
Pyongyang's leadership, reflecting the complex power equation between the two
"Kim Jong-il's trip is to seek economic aid from Russia. But looking at it from
the bigger picture, by doing so, North Korea wants to reduce its heavy
dependence on China," said Yoo Ho-yeol, professor of Korean politics and
foreign policy at Korea University in Seoul.
Gordon Chang, a New York-based expert on North Korea and author of Nuclear
Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, said Kim Jong-il was simply
playing foreign policy cards often used by his father, Kim Il-sung, during the
Cold War. "He is playing off China against Russia."
The trick worked well during the Cold War when ties between Moscow and Beijing
were strained and both competed to bring the junior communist state into their
camp. But the relationship between China and Russia has changed dramatically
since those days.
Today, China is primarily competing with the United States. Russia, since the
collapse of the Soviet Union, has been looking for opportunities to reclaim its
former glory as an empire by reviving its economy. For this it needs trade and
cooperation with the wealthy South, not the impoverished North.
"Russia wants to diversify its oil and gas exports, its prime economic pillar,
not just sell them to Europe and China but also to South Korea. For that to be
possible, pipelines have to pass through North Korea. Russia is happy to work
with both Koreas," said Leonid Petrov, a Russian expert on Korean affairs who
now teaches at the University of Sydney in Australia.
"This is Russia's 'Sunshine' policy for both Koreas, linking the divided Koreas
with pipelines. The United States supports only one side: South Korea. China
supports only one side too: North Korea. But Russia supports both Koreas
because it is in its best national interests."
The South Korean energy market holds great potential for Russia, with Moscow
eyeing the transit of electricity, oil and Siberian natural gas to the South
through pipelines and power lines through North Korea.
South Korea relies on imports for all of its oil needs. It is the fifth-largest
net importer of oil in the world and the second-largest importer of liquefied
natural gas (LNG) in the world behind Japan. South Korea has no international
oil or natural gas pipelines, and relies exclusively on tanker shipments of LNG
and crude oil. Russia also recently proposed transmitting surplus electricity
to South Korea via North Korea
Cash-strapped North Korea, committed to staging a great national display of
prosperity next year to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birthday,
is likely to welcome any such deal. If realized, it could expect to earn more
than US$500 million a year in handling charges over the gas pipeline alone.
Russia is also interested in linking the Trans-Siberian Railways to both
Koreas, with the aim of reviving the Far Eastern region's economy.
Aside from its economic goals, the pipelines could benefit Russia
diplomatically with Moscow seen as playing the role of a peacemaker. The
pipeline initiative comes as a restart of six-party talks aimed at persuading
North Korea to give up its nukes appears ever-more likely; Russia so far has
played a minor role in the stalled negotiations.
"Moscow can secure diplomatic currency ahead of the resumption of the talks,"
said Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University.
Pyongyang also seeks diplomatic currency. In addition to using Russia to
balance against China, it can use the Kim- Medvedev summit talks to make sure
Russia is on its side, not in the US and South Korean camp, at the expected
North Korea and Russia have not given a time frame for Kim- Medvedev talks, but
South Korean newspaper The Korea Times cited a senior Foreign Ministry official
as saying that the summit would be held in Ulan-Ude on Tuesday. Ulan Ude is the
third-largest city in eastern Siberia, some 3,800 kilometers from the Russian
border city of Khasan where Kim's special armored train stopped on Saturday for
a welcoming ceremony.
"We believe the two main agenda items of the summit will be the dismantlement
of the North's nuclear program and boosting economic ties, especially in the
construction of a gas pipeline that will bring Russian natural gas to both
Koreas," the official told The Korea Times.
Rather than bristling at the Russia-North Korea detente, Beijing likely sees
the benefit in the improving ties.
"China would love to see the Pyongyang-Moscow relationship improve," said Zhu
Feng. "This will help mitigate the economic hardship of North Korea. I don't
think Beijing wants to be sorely overloaded [in providing aid to North Korea].
The Cold War is over. Beijing and Moscow now like to work together and
coordinate on the North Korean issue."
Sunny Lee (email@example.com) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.
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