President says pipeline project not ‘far-fetched’President Lee Myung Bak said plans to build a natural-gas pipeline across the divided peninsula are realistic, less than a year after a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a disputed island.
“I do not consider this as a far-fetched dream,” Lee said in an interview in New York, speaking through an interpreter. He described the project as “win-win for everyone involved.”
OAO Gazprom, Russia’s gas-export monopoly, this month signed preliminary agreements with South Korea’s Korea Gas Corp. and the North Korean government to build a pipeline that would carry as much as 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year across its eastern border to the peninsula. Lee’s support for the project may signal an easing of tensions between the two nations.
“I’m aware that the Russians and the North Koreans have been discussing this issue and that some progress, good progress, is being made,” Lee said. “We can buy gas at reasonable prices; and for the North Koreans, they can also get some benefit by collecting the transaction fee.”
The pipeline project may prove a turning point for inter-Korean relations, Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of Lee’s ruling Grand National Party, told lawmakers on Sept. 7. He estimated North Korea could earn about $100 million a year to rebuild its economy, while South Korea might reduce its natural-gas prices by about 30 percent.
Increasing demand from industry and electricity generators for natural gas underpins the economic rationale for the project, said Charles Kim, a New York-based director of Mirae Asset Securities Co.
“South Korea is the world’s second-biggest importer of natural gas, and it’s all coming in on tankers,” Kim said. “Building new nuclear-power plants has become politically unpalatable after the accident in Japan, so this would also boost the demand for natural gas.”
Higher energy costs are also contributing to an inflation rate in South Korea that has exceeded the Bank of Korea’s target ceiling of 4 percent every month this year and increased the cost of living, in a blow to Lee’s popularity.
Russia is offering North Korea gas, electricity and railway projects to induce the regime to restart nuclear nonproliferation talks. The two Koreas in July agreed to try to revive the talks, and on Aug. 30, Lee named Yu Woo-ik to become the new minister of unification.
The pipeline plan would bring the most foreign influence into the North Korea economy since the civil war, and this may be too much for the regime in Pyongyang to tolerate, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington.
“North Korea’s commercial history is filled with agreements which were never fulfilled,” Eberstadt said. “It is the global master at the game of extracting aid from other nations.”
Separately, Lee said economic growth in South Korea would be in the 4 percent range next year, echoing comments from Bahk Jae-wan, minister of strategy and finance, who said during an interview in Washington yesterday that the government has no immediate plans to change its forecasts. The official estimates are 4.5 percent for this year and 4.8 percent in 2012.
“We’re going to have to wait a little bit longer to see the figures coming in after the fourth quarter this year in order for Korea to predict how we’re going to perform next year,” Lee said.
The president also said there is “no validity” to criticisms that South Korea is trying to keep the value of its currency low, unfairly boosting the competitiveness of its exporters. The won is down about 5 percent so far this year against the U.S. dollar and 10 percent again Japan’s yen.
한글 관련 기사 [연합뉴스]
李대통령 "남북러 가스관사업 실현가능"
'블룸버그'와 회견..'북한에도 이익될 것'
미국 뉴욕을 방문 중인 이명박 대통령은 22일(현지시간) 남ㆍ북ㆍ러 가스관 건설 사업에 대해 "한반도를 통과하는 가스관 건설 계획은 실현가능한 사업"이라고 말했다.
이 대통령은 이날 숙소호텔에서 미국의 경제통신사인 '블룸버그 통신'과 회견을 갖고 "이 같은 사업 계획이 '허황된 꿈(a far-fetched dream)'이라고 생각하지 않는다"고 강조했다.
그러면서 "이 계획은 경제적이나 산업적인 측면에서 봤을 때 남ㆍ북ㆍ러 모두가 동참하는 '윈-윈 사업'이 될 것"이라고 밝혔다.
이 대통령은 "북한과 러시아가 가스관 사업에 대해 진전된 논의를 하고 있는 것으로 알고 있다"면서 "(이 사업이 현실화될 경우) 우리는 합리적 가격에 가스를 도입하고 북한은 통과료를 통해 상당한 이익을 볼 수 있을 것"이라고 말했다.
이어 "우리는 이 계획에 대해 통합적으로 체계적으로 접근해야만 한다"면서 "최종 결정까지는 시간이 걸리겠지만 충분히 가능한 일"이라고 밝혔다.
이 대통령은 또 한국의 경제성장률 전망에 대해 "내년에는 4%가 될 것"이라며 "내년 경제성장을 정확히 전망하기 위해서는 4분기 경제지표 결과를 지켜봐야 한다"고 설명했다.
하지만 이 대통령은 한국 정부가 수출 경쟁력을 높이기 위해 의도적으로 원화 가치를 낮춘다는 비판에 대해서는 "근거없는 것"이라고 일축했다.