[Viewpoint] How the gas pipeline can help

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[Viewpoint] How the gas pipeline can help

While serving as a correspondent in Moscow, I often heard people complain about how tough it is to do business in Russia. It was no different for Koreans. For the last two decades, South Korea-Russian relations have progressed little. The magnitude of two-way trade and investment grew, but that was just surface progress. One diplomat sarcastically observed that South Korea has not endeavored to improve relations with Russia. We have seen standoffishness from Russia in the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament and United Nations Security Council meetings discussing North Korean attacks on South Korea’s naval warship and Yeonpyeong Island. The two countries may appear to be on friendly terms, but cannot be deemed close.

It is a pity that bilateral ties have been left unattended for so long given the potential reciprocal benefits and infinite investment opportunities in resource-rich Siberia. South Korea struck up diplomatic ties with Russia before China, but Seoul has been more keen on diplomatic dealings with Beijing than Moscow.

It’s not exactly that Seoul was uninterested. Both Seoul and Moscow often had their hands tied by North Korea. North Korea stands between us and the Russian mainland. Ambitious projects like a railway connection to the Trans-Siberia Railway or a gas pipeline from Russia can never take place without North Korea’s cooperation.

South Korea and Russia have taken renewed interest in a natural gas pipeline project ever since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month and spoke on the allowing of an overland gas pipeline to pass through from Russia to South Korea. The project, if realized, could also remove a bottleneck in inter-Korean relations and renew bilateral economic cooperation. Hong Joon-pyo, head of the ruling Grand National Party, raised expectations saying there may be good news about the pipeline project in November. There was even talk that Moscow was seeking a three-way summit among leaders of the two Koreas and Russia in Siberia. On a recent TV talk show, President Lee Myung-bak said the issue could speed up more quickly than expected.

The project is a win for all three countries. South Korea will be securing a cheaper energy supply, North Korea will earn an annual estimated revenue of $100 million for transit services, and Russia will sell more gas. The two Koreas would naturally return to speaking terms. But there is one big setback: the chance of North Korea abusing its transit role. Given the past erratic behavior of North Korea, Russia’s words of assurance cannot alone guarantee supply security.

The Kaesong industrial complex provides a kind of answer. Despite icy ties between the two Koreas, the joint-venture industrial complex continues business as usual. North Korean workers at the complex grew to 47,000 as of the end of June. North Koreans are trained and learn market practices as well as getting a taste of the South Korean lifestyle. They’ve grown familiar with South Korean instant food and confectioneries and a get second-hand experience of South Korean life and its market economy. The way of South Koreans silently moves into North Korea like a Trojan horse at a cost of $35 million a year, estimated on the monthly salary of $63 per North Korean employee.

The gas pipeline can serve a similar function. Our primary concern is the security of the pipeline. The government is trying to come up with a safeguard to allow Moscow to ensure the safety of the gas supplies. But we had the same fear about the Kaesong operation. Many were concerned South Korean employees there could be used as hostages in an emergency situation. But industrial activity at Kaesong went uninterrupted regardless of the state of political affairs. The pipeline project could also be that safe and lucrative.

Russia supplies gas and petroleum to Europe via various pipelines in the Ukraine. The more pipelines, the more their operations are affected by external factors. But experts believe the pipeline will circumvent large cities in North Korea to avoid compensation costs. But if the pipeline goes through large cities like Pyongyang, Hamhung, and Wonsan, we could build a gas power station and our gas could improve the lives of North Koreans who depend on coal for heat in the winter. This could also ensure the security of the pipeline.

With a little intuition and humanity, we can use the pipeline to improve ties with North Korea and life in the destitute country.

*The writer is an editor of foreign and security affairs of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Ahn Sung-kyoo
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