&#91TODAY&#93Natural gas as nuclear solution

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&#91TODAY&#93Natural gas as nuclear solution

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wrote to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 that a drop of oil is "as valuable as a drop of blood." In 1979, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt warned that competition for oil could start a war. President George Bush justified the Gulf War of 1991 by declaring that Saddam Hussein's control over Kuwaiti oil fields would threaten "our economy, our lives and our freedom."

Oil was an important cause of the Gulf War of the 1990s. Behind the war that the second President Bush is preparing in the Middle East is also oil. And we need to look at the petroleum element that is creeping into the search for a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

A senior Washington official who quietly passed through Seoul recently, meeting President-elect Roh Moo-hyun and his key advisers, raised the possibility of building thermal power plants for North Korea "in addition to" the light-water nuclear reactors currently under construction. That is a modification of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's proposal to replace the light-water reactor plan with a thermal power plant project, but the element of a thermal plant as part of bargaining with the North is common to both ideas.

An American expert on Korea, Selig Harrison, dealt with this idea in depth in the winter issue of the Korean quarterly journal Creation and Criticism. He talked about a $20 billion plan by ExxonMobil to develop a natural gas field in Sakhalin, Russia, and, if Washington gave the go-ahead, to build a 1,860-mile pipeline from there along the east coast of North Korea and on to Seoul. The pipeline itself would take just four years to build at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion. The plan envisions considerable monetary return for North Korea from licensing the passage of the pipeline, and the United States would also build about eight power plants that generate 250 megawatts each, using natural gas. This project could be a gold mine for ExxonMobil. The idea of an American company building a natural gas pipeline from Sakhalin to Korea and using it to generate electric power in North Korea much more cheaply than light-water reactors presents an entirely new possibility for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. And the reason it is feasible is because of the particular sensitivity of U.S. President George W. Bush and his national security aides to petroleum interests.

Mr. Bush's involvement in the gas and oil business goes back to 1978, first with Arbusto Energy and later as a director of Harken Energy. Vice President Dick Cheney was chairman of Halliburton, an oil services company, from 1995 to 2000. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was a director of Chevron from 1991 to 2000; an oil tanker has even been named after her.

Oil is also an issue in Iraq, and there it involves other countries. Russia is believed to be seeking a guarantee of participation in oil interests in post-Saddam Iraq as a condition for supporting U.S. military action. The biggest oil companies in Russia, Lukoil, Sibneft, Yukos, and Tyumen, are already vying for positions and are being represented by Texas law firms that have connections with the Bush administration.

The BTC oil pipeline, now under construction, is a good example of a "political pipeline." The pipeline, which will transport crude oil from Azerbaijan to the Mediter-ranean Sea, runs from The Azerbaijani capital of Baku through the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, and reaches Ceyhan on the shores of the Mediterranean. The largest owner of the project, BP, is represented by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who also represented Mr. Bush in the Florida vote recount in 2000.

Now that noisy diplomatic missions to North Korea to tackle the nuclear issue have run their course, the United States may have noted with interest some possible economic benefits besides disarming the North of its nuclear capabilities. Natural gas fields might well be a locus of U.S. and North Korean interests. If oil and natural gas turn out to be the stimulus to improved relations between North Korea and the United States, there is no reason to begrudge the fortune that ExxonMobil could reap. Natural gas could solve a nuclear issue; petroleum energy has often shaped history by provoking human ambitions.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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