Putin and Abe make niceDiscussions are heating up over the idea of linking Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) to Japan. If that happens, our government’s goal of transforming Korea into a hub in Northeast Asia by linking the TSR — which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok — to the Trans-Korean Railway Project will most likely run aground. Japan’s Sankei Shimbun reported Monday that Moscow proposed to Tokyo to connect the TSR to Hokkaido via Sakhalin.
The concept of connecting Russia and Japan through railways is not new. Russia has been trying to develop its thinly-populated Far East region — called Primorsky Krai — since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. The problem was which country to negotiate with. Russia favored Korea over Japan because of its territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands. As inter-Korean tension deepens, however, Moscow appears to be tilting toward Tokyo.
Japan calls the four Kuril Islands its Northern Territories. After its defeat in World War II, Japan handed them to Russia, putting an end to their historical disputes. Russia, of course, has no intention of returning them to Japan. But the Russian economy faces the double whammy of plunging international oil prices and sanctions by the West after its forced annexation of Crimea. Russia is proposing construction of railways in the Kuril Islands because it can expect big economic gains from Japan after linking the TSR to Japan. There is no technical problem in building an undersea tunnel between the Kuril Islands and Hokkaido, because the 42-kilometer (26 miles) distance is even shorter than the Strait of Dover.
Tokyo is eager for economic cooperation with Moscow and has offered a 600 billion yen ($5.86 billion) aid package, which covers vast areas ranging from medical services to seafood processing plants in which Japan has strong leverage.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is behind the initiative. He promised to bring the four northern islands back to Japan in exchange for financial handouts to Moscow. Abe invited Putin to Yamaguchi Prefecture, his home turf, for a summit on Dec. 15. Putin will surely receive the most courteous-ever treatment in the Japanese style.
Both countries have experiences in running an empire. Once the two shake hands over the issue of extending the TSR to Japan, Korea may have to give up its cherished dreams over the Eurasian continent. The government must devise a strategy to cope with the new Russo-Japanese rapprochement.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 5, Page 30