[Letters] On thin ice with North Korea

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[Letters] On thin ice with North Korea

The recent proposal to build a gas pipeline to bring Russian gas to South Korea through its northern neighbor seems ridiculous when one considers the political instability in North Korea and constant threats like the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong attack. Yet the idea of a gas pipeline project has been a major topic of discussion in Northeast Asia, indicating a willingness of the three leaders to consider pushing the project forward.

The agreement “to start construction of the pipeline in 2013 and ship gas through the connection from 2017” was reached in September this year between the Russian gas firm Gazprom and its South Korean counterpart, the Korea Gas Corporation.

But despite each party having something to potentially gain from the project, there are still a lot of obstacles and concerns about whether North Korea can be trusted not to use the pipeline to gain leverage over South Korea’s energy supply.

Relations between the South and North have been strained by a number of historical and political issues, constantly plagued by hostility, constant suspicion and armed skirmishes.

It’s useful to consider the examples of other countries that have discussed similar pipeline projects, notably the IPI pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan and India. Relations between Pakistan and India have made the situation quite complicated despite years of negotiations, and there have been conflicts over pricing and security issues.

The relationship between South Korea and North Korea is no better, perhaps even worse than that between India and Pakistan. While Russia’s gas firm Gazprom and South Korean KoGas have agreed in a memorandum to start construction in 2013, there is still no confirmation as to whether the two Koreas have negotiated on the issue.

Safety concerns also arise, and the project might turn out to be quite a hazardous one for Russia. “The pipeline is expected to be over 1,100 kilometers [684 miles] long, including 700 kilometers across North Korea,” the country where actions are unpredictable and volatile. North Korea would be supplied with Russian gas - energy the country desperately needs. The North will also benefit from transit revenues from gas crossing its territory to South Korea. But there’s no guarantee that North Korea will not decide to block the pipeline out of the blue, demand to lower gas prices for its domestic consumption and start bargaining over transit fees.

If relations between South Korea and North Korea become more tense, the latter might siphon off gas and jeopardize peace and stability in the region. In the 1970s, when a comprehensive resolution of the issue was needed, western Germany did not agree to receive Soviet gas through eastern Germany. Sanity won in that situation. A bypass pipeline, the Urengoy-Uzhgorod, was built instead, through Czechoslovakia.

Before building the North-South pipeline, all possible alternatives should be considered. Until now, minimal steps have been taken, and there are many more miles to go before a workable agreement is reached. While the gas pipeline project might contribute to a boost in economic cooperation, it might also undermine already unstable relations between the South and North.

Who knows whether Pyongyang will use the pipeline to pressure Seoul? No progress will be achieved if the problems of safety and instability in the region are not taken into account in the first place, especially with a neighbor that has proven so many times that it can be aggressive and unpredictable.

Khon Olga, student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

*Letters and commentaries for publication should be addressed “Letters to the Editor.” E-mailed letters should be sent to eopinion@joongang.co.kr.
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