The ‘Dear Leader’ in RussiaNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-il is busy touring overseas to relieve his country’s economic distress. Just three months after agreeing with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the development of the Rason and Hwanggumpyong special economic zones during a visit to China last May, Kim has toured a hydroelectric power plant in Amur, Russia.
Russia had promised North Korea that it would transmit surplus electricity from the power station. Kim now plans to go to Ulan-Ude near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia to have a summit meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.
At the summit, Kim is expected to discuss the construction of a pipeline that will send natural gas from Sakhalin island to South Korea via North Korea. In an Aug. 15 Liberation Day letter to Kim, Medvedev urged him to cooperate on the issue, and Kim reportedly responded positively to the request. Since his first inter-Korean summit in 2000, Kim has, on several occasions, made remarks suggesting he, too, expects the pipeline to be built. The project, if completed, could bring the North as much as $100 million in revenue annually as well as much needed energy at a cheap price.
The pipeline initiative was agreed to by President Lee Myung-bak and Medvedev at a summit in Moscow in 2008. At the time, both leaders expressed strong hopes that gas transmission would start from 2015. Seoul can expect a huge economic benefit as it would receive gas from Russia on a cheap and stable basis. Gas accounts for one-seventh of its energy consumption.
Despite such potential benefits among all related parties, the project has been put on hold due to the North’s belligerent attitude toward the South and its allies. As long as there is the possibility that the gas supply would be interrupted by the North for political or military reasons, it is difficult for Seoul to put a final stamp on the deal. If the ongoing conflict over the North’s nuclear ambitions is not resolved, South-North relations can hardly have a soft landing. It’s also hard to expect a rosy scenario unless trilateral economic cooperation is fully activated so that the Trans-Korean Railway is successfully connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In his current visit to Russia, North Korean leader Kim appears to be pondering various ways to rejuvenate his hopeless economy. However, he must be well aware that without a thorough - and complete - resolution of the nuclear crisis, no grand ideas will be realized.