By Ruhee Neog
Kim Jong-il met Russian President Medvedev in August this year, in the former’s first visit to the country in nine years. It was primarily a diplomatic and economic strengthening exercise, and a variety of issues, from North Korean proclamations of resuming the six-party talks to reinforcing Russian economic investments in North Korea were discussed. One of these was the gas pipeline project, envisaged as a transnational conduit for natural gas from Russia to South Korea via North Korea. This development warrants an appraisal of the gains to be accrued by the principal actors and the potential challenges, giving due consideration to the milieu that the deal is unfolding in.
For North Korea, the fees and geopolitical leverage earned as a transit country for the pipeline and anticipated reduction in its gas import expenditure will undoubtedly be well received. In addition is the question of China, a comrade with the power of the veto at its disposal. North Korea, on its part, would welcome Russia’s entry into the scene as it could ease dependency on China, bring into its fold another member of the six-party talks and open a possible avenue for international concessions. This plays on the important concept of juche, or self-sufficiency, as propounded by Kim Il-Sung. While absolute North Korean self-sufficiency is not a tenable idea, a decrease in reliance on one country and the ability, however slight, to determine its own affairs can certainly be seen as an evolution of juche. Having said that, it must be acknowledged that despite juche North Korea cannot afford to openly irk its patrons. Also, elevating Russia to a player of consequence in North Korea and by extension, South Korea, can be symbolic of attempting to eclipse the US’ sway in the South.
The proposed pipeline can yield great dividends for Russia as a strategic tool. Exercising control over the pipeline will allow Russia to extend and consolidate its geopolitical influence in East Asia. Its construction could well serve as a first step in building inter-Korean dialogue, with mediation by Russia. Also, it would assist in expanding the economic scope of the energy industry, one of Russia’s chief revenue generators, and wean it off its export dependence on Europe. This seems to have already been set in motion by the formal inauguration in January of the ESPO (Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean) pipeline that traverses Japan, the Koreas and China. In addition, the boost to gas exports in the Korean Peninsula may permit Russia to pull its weight in gas negotiations with China, which started with a framework agreement in 2009 but were frozen soon after owing to disagreements over pricing.
Russia is keen on working towards peace in the Korean Peninsula, an enthusiasm that can be gauged from its reportedly successful persuasion of North Korea to think about freezing nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches upon the resumption of six party talks. This gesture does not necessarily have to be read as altruism in view of the greater good. Peace on the Peninsula would indisputably serve Russia’s security interests. First, it would ensure the safety of its pipeline and consequently help gain a significant sway over connectivity projects, such as railways – bickering neighbours being inimical to the smooth operation of such transnational projects. Second, it would strengthen Russia’s position in East Asia and aid the development of its remote south-eastern region. Third, conflict on the Peninsula can prompt the migration of North Korean refugees into Russia, and fourth, it would be able to gain international validation if it is able to restore a semblance of peace to the region, or even create an illusion of it. Economic and realpolitik considerations would be of the foremost concern, but could be construed as the incorporation of ethics in one’s foreign policy, which would earn Russia some moral plaudits.
A convergence of interests between Russia and North Korea could be an uncomfortable development for China. While China is North Korea’s chief international advocate, it is also unwilling to tarnish its global ascendancy by virulently favouring North Korea. The arguable influence it can wield to bring North Korea to negotiate, thereby propelling its global standing, and work towards the implementation of its xiao-kang policy which visualizes the lessening of the societal economic gap, especially along crucial areas that border North Korea, serve both internal and external aspirations. Russian clout therefore may well diminish China’s current footing in the Korean peninsula.
South Korea is known to import all of its energy requirements, and in an ideal world therefore the gas pipeline would only invite positive feedback. Indeed, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recorded his belief in a live television interview that the project may proceed at an accelerated pace. Mikkal Herberg of NBR told BBC News that South Korea is attempting to diversify its energy sources and decrease its dependence on West Asian oil supplies transported via increasing conflict-prone Asian sea lanes. The envisaged pipeline would require a shorter trip with less transaction charges. Such assurances notwithstanding, and working on the supposition that Bak’s statement could be mere political rhetoric, a few glaring setbacks must be conceded, such as North Korea’s frequently provocative conduct – the seizure of South Korean assets at the Mount Kumang joint venture is an example. On the other hand another joint venture, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, seems to be proceeding relatively smoothly.
The players in this scramble for geopolitical and economic influence, leverage and what have you have both things to win and lose. Given the tug of interests, negotiating can prove to be intractable and the actual implementation of the pipeline can be on hold until all pros and cons are weighed and conclusions reached. Whether the pipeline is a pipedream is therefore really anybody’s guess.
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]