Political will can forge Russo-Korean projects

By Anatoly Torkunov Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-5 20:43:01

Russia and both Koreas have been discussing trilateral infrastructure projects for a long time now.

The two major ideas are the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea through North Korea, and the connection of the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Trans-Korean Railway. Both projects are ambitious and costly, but could bring significant economic and political benefits.

This September, Russia and North Korea completed a railroad link between Khasan and Rajin. South Korea is demonstrating renewed interest in the railroad project as well.

A railroad route from Pusan to Europe will not only provide a cheap, fast and secure way to transport goods and people across Eurasia, but also ease inter-Korean tensions, thus strengthening security and stability in the entire region.

However, Seoul has yet to take practical steps to make this dream a reality.

For now, Russian Railways, a state monopoly, has been shouldering the costs of all actual on-site work of the trilateral project.

The modernized Rajin-Khasan link, while a bilateral endeavor, may become a steppingstone for the large-scale modernization of the North Korean railroad network, which, in turn, is a prerequisite for connecting the Korean Peninsula to the rest of Eurasia's railroads.

Further investment is important, but this is not the only way in which South Korea may participate. Railroad needs to be in constant use, or it falls into disrepair.

However, unlike Russian businesses, South Korean companies are reluctant to transport goods through the Rajin-Khasan link.

In other words, to make the railroad project truly trilateral and bring out its full economic and security-enhancing potential, South Korea needs to play a more active role.

News that the pipeline project talks between Russia and South Korea resumed in mid-October rekindles hope that this time the parties will be able to avoid the problems that stalled the process before. The economic benefits are evident. Russia, as a supplier, wants to enter the promising Asian energy market.

South Korea, as a major natural gas importer, needs to diversify its supply sources, and Russian pipeline-transported gas can offer a cheap alternative. North Korea will gain the transit revenues.

Like the railroad project, pipeline cooperation may contribute to bringing the Koreas together; besides, imported Russian gas may become a non-nuclear solution to the North Korea energy problem.

Although North Korea's supposed "unpredictability" and "belligerence" are often cited as the reasons why the project remains at the discussion stage, the reality is not that simple.

In fact, Pyongyang has often expressed its interest in the project and the profits it promises. The factors of instability and security are complex and do not break down to North Korea's "ill will."

North Korea is not the only actor in the region, and only part of responsibility for instability and crises lies with it. The real issues that hinder pipeline cooperation are more specific. South Korea wants Russia to guarantee that it will pay compensation for unreceived gas, even if the fault for interrupted supply lies with the transit country.

Gazprom, Russia's largest gas company, is looking for profit, so it cannot agree to such demands.

Even with the talks reopened, the pipeline project remains a long-term objective. Gazprom seems to have chosen to focus on liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports building a large-scale LNG plant in Vladivostok, and Gazprom's medium-term budget plan makes no mention of a pipeline across the Korean Peninsula.

Russia's interests in North-East Asia are simple: Moscow seeks mutually profitable economic opportunities, and wants a stable and peaceful political and military environment that will allow it to develop its own Far East territories. In this sense, trilateral projects are a way to kill two birds with one stone.

However, their implementation will be impossible if the parties fail to treat each other as equals, cannot muster the courage and political will to contribute and do not agree on mutually beneficial terms.

The author is Rector of MGIMO-University, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, and Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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