Russia nudges North to cooperate

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Russia nudges North to cooperate

Russia expressed its desire to cooperate with North Korea on important gas and rail links yesterday in a message sent to celebrate the country’s liberation day.

The appeal for further cooperation was delivered on behalf of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to mark the 66th anniversary of the end of Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

The message was taken as a reminder that Russia is running out of patience on long-stalled plans to export its natural gas to South Korea via an inter-Korean pipeline, as well as a mothballed project to link the three countries by rail.

“We have willingness to boost cooperation with the DPRK [North Korea] in all directions of mutual concern, including a three-party plan encompassing Russia, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea [South Korea] in the fields of gasification, energy and railway construction,” Medvedev was quoted as saying.

“They will be of important economic significance and contribute to stabilizing the situation in Northeast Asia and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”

The ambitious project to supply Russian natural gas to South Korea as early as 2015 - possibly via North Korea - was agreed by President Lee Myung-bak and Medvedev in September 2008. Under the program, the South would buy at least 10 billion cubic meters (7.5 million tons) of natural gas annually from Russia.

The agreement included a joint study on the feasibility of building a pipeline that will cross the Korean Peninsula for delivery through the North. At the time, Seoul said Moscow was already having discussions with Pyongyang about the project.

But as relations between the two Koreas have soured recently, so have the prospects of the $100-billion project.

The government initially planned to conduct joint research on the feasibility of the project from 2008 to 2010, and begin construction this year on the pipeline that would run from Vladivostok to South Korea.

Linking the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Trans-Korea Railway to form a grand network was another hot prospect that subsequently went cold.

After the two Koreas agreed to link railways and roads in 2000, the Gyeongui cross-border railway was joined and became operational in 2007. It was later suspended due to escalated military tension.

According to the KCNA, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sent a reply to Medvedev yesterday expressing his support for bilateral projects that serve the two countries’ mutual interests.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke recently with his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan about efforts to get the projects back on track, but the latest push by Medvedev marks an unusually aggressive step from Russia.

South Korea has also promoted the gas pipeline project by reminding the North of its lucrative potential, while stressing the financial savings the fuel-dependent South will be able to enjoy due to the lowered delivery costs.

By Ser Myo-ja []
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