Update: Japan sees Kim’s Russian trip as link to gas

08/24/2011
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UPDATE
According to communiques coming out of the talks between North Korea and Russia, an “agreement” has been reached “in principle” on laying a gas pipeline through North Korea to South Korea.

However, the Japanese media pointed out that “an agreement was made to establish a committee to study the problem. There was no further agreement.”

Russia proposed to South Korea that the pipeline be entirely under Russian management, with Russian personnel manning all pumping and transit stations, said the Japanese media. But according to the Daily NK, a South Korean site that specializes in North Korean news, “…immunizing South Korea from the ever present North Korea risk would be impossible.”

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun stated, “The South Korean government will positively consider (the pipeline) only if they receive assurances from Russia that Russia can be held (entirely) accountable for the risk of gas imports through North Korea.”

Russia suggested to South Korea that the pipeline be managed by Russia with Russian personnel stationed in North Korea in control of all pumping stations and other distribution facilities. Short of Russia actually taking control of North Korea this is an impossibility. For Russia to have that much control, it would mean nothing less than North Korea surrendering complete sovereignty over their own territory, like the old Panama Canal Zone.

Dong Yong Seung of the Samsung Economic Research Institute cast cold water on the whole idea, “Even if North Korea and Russia agree on the gas pipeline construction, an agreement that excludes South Korea doesn’t mean anything significant at the moment. Even if Russia were to assure South Korea that it will hold North Korea accountable, there exists plenty of chance that North Korea will (abuse) the gas pipeline in inter-Korean relations.”

Japan sees Kim’s Russian trip as link to gas

TOKYO (Majirox news) — Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s tyrant in uniform, is on his first trip to Russia in 9 years, typically, by train. He hates flying. The news has been greeted with yawns of disinterest worldwide and shuffled off to the back pages.

While little interest has been shown elsewhere in Kim’s trip, much of the Japanese media have been treating it as major news, with reporters filing stories from both Seoul and Moscow.

Winston Churchill called the Soviet Union “an enigma wrapped in mystery,” a description that fits modern North Korea even better. This may be one reason for Japan’s fascination with North Korea. However, the real reason appears to be a Japanese belief that the Stalinist state’s strange mixture of weakness and malevolence makes North Korea the ultimate prize in the “great game” played between Russia, South Korea and China for control of North Korea.

In this scenario, whoever commands North Korea, be it Russia, China or much less likely South Korea, gains control over North Korea’s rich natural resources ranging from coal and iron ore to rare earth. It also locks in geographical control to extend the Trans-Siberian Railway to South Korean rail lines via North Korea or send a gas pipeline from Russia via North Korea to South Korea. According to this way of thinking, irrespective of who ends up controlling North Korea: the effect on Japan would be severe. In many versions of the scenario, South Korea ends up strengthened, making it into even more worrisome a competitor of Japan than it is today.

One thing that is missing from these Japanese calculations is the consciousness that the Chinese and Russians might be even more scared of North Korea than Japan. After all, Japan has the Japan Sea between it and North Korea while China and Russia are across its border.

Following North Korea’s second nuclear bomb test last May, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev stated in uncompromising terms: “The underground test by North Korea in an area adjacent to Russian territory and is a cause for extreme concern.”

The Japanese media appears to believe that Kim is going to Russia to strike a deal that will allow a Russian pipeline to pass through North Korea to deliver natural gas to Japan. What is more likely is that when Kim meets the Russians, he will be subjected to a combination of bribes and brow beating, with the emphasis more on brow beating than bribes.

At the beginning of July when President Medvedev was in Italy, he told the Italian media that the North Korean situation “worries me more (than Iran) because whereas Iran is maintaining dialog with the international community, North Korea has practically ceased all contacts with the outside world.” He added, “At the same time, North Korea continues nuclear tests and the launches of short, intermediate and longer-than-intermediate range missile. Obviously, we are very concerned by this. We are in close territorial proximity to that country.”

If past Russian behavior is any judge, any gas pipeline they construct to South Korea will be built undersea. They have no need for North Korea. After a series of disagreements with eastern European countries about gas prices and other problems, Russia built a 1,222-kilometer (759 mile) pipeline under the Baltic running from Russia to Germany, bypassing East Europe. Indeed the technology of undersea gas lines is well established and in use worldwide. Norway, for example, sells gas to Britain via the “Britpipe,” an undersea gas line that runs 1,166 kilometers (725 miles) under the North Sea. The Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Japan Sea offer the same conditions and challenges in constructing an undersea pipeline. Indeed, there is no reason Russia could not run one to Japan as a branch of a possible South Korean pipeline.

Contrary to the worries of the Japanese media, chances are strong that when Kim gets to Lake Baikal, where he will be meeting with President Medvedev, he’ll be met at the station by pretty girls offering bread and salt, the traditional Russian welcome. But other than that Kim will probably quickly discover he is not welcome at all.

rwhyre@majiroxnews.com

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