MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin is strengthening ties with North Korea, even as most of the world seeks to punish Kim Jong Il’s regime for testing a nuclear bomb.
OAO Russian Railways, the state-run monopoly led by Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin, is planning to complete a rail line crossing the North Korean-Russian border. While the project doesn’t violate United Nations sanctions on North Korea, it shows Putin’s drive to expand Russian influence.
“The railway is a symbol of Russia’s power in the region,” said Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University in New York. “Russia has been trying to get back into the game in Northeast Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The railway is one way.”
The Soviet Union backed communist North Korea throughout the Cold War with cheap oil and anti-American ideology. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea lost its subsidies and had to watch as capitalist Russia improved relations with rival South Korea. Today Russia enjoys close diplomatic relations with both Korean states.
“The Korean peninsula, both south and north, is more favorably disposed toward economic cooperation with Russia because Koreans see it as a more benign force than China and Japan,” said Selig Harrison, a North Korea specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Russia joined the other members of the UN Security Council in condemning the North Korean nuclear bomb test, which was announced Oct. 9. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the test “utterly outrageous.”
The 19-kilometer (12-mile) North Korean-Russian border, which cuts off northeastern China from a direct outlet to the sea, gives Russia a strategic wedge in a region dominated by China and Japan. One day, that border may be used not only to ship out Asian goods to Europe by land, but to pump natural gas to South Korea by pipeline as Russia strives to ship one-third of its oil and gas exports to Asia, up from 3 percent.
Putin and Kim agreed to revive North Korea’s link to the Trans-Siberian Railway in August 2001, after Kim made his first train journey from Pyongyang to Moscow.
The idea was to connect the South Korean port of Pusan with western Europe, by way of North Korea and then on to the 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) breadth of Russia. The route may become a major transportation line, challenging maritime routes through the Suez Canal by cutting the travel time in half and trimming costs by up to 75 percent.
‘Iron Silk Road’
Then-President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, who was pursuing closer engagement with North Korea through his “Sunshine Policy,” strongly backed the project, dubbed “the Iron Silk Road.”
Despite delays over financing and feasibility, Russian Railways is keeping the $2.5-billion project alive. Railroad chief Yakunin said in July that refurbishment of the 40-kilometer stretch linking the North Korean port of Rajin to the Russian border town of Khasan would be complete by the end of the year.
Even after North Korea’s nuclear-bomb test, Yakunin traveled to Seoul to press South Korea to guarantee the freight that would make the Eurasian rail link economically viable.
Yakunin, Putin’s neighbor in an elite dacha settlement outside St. Petersburg, is viewed as a dark-horse presidential candidate for 2008. In January, the two men were seen attending Orthodox Christmas mass together.
Yakunin didn’t reply to questions directed to his spokesman Mikhail Goncharov.
Russian exports to North Korea rose 78 percent to $206 million in 2004, the last year the Korean Trade Investment Promotion Agency published figures. Russia still comes in a distant third behind China and South Korea in terms of trade with North Korea.
The idea of linking Korea with Europe goes back 70 years, to when the peninsula was a Japanese colony.
“‘Pusan to Paris’ was a Japanese slogan in the 1930s and something the South Koreans have now taken up,” said Armstrong. The main barrier to the project now, he said, was the reclusive North Korean leadership’s reluctance to open its borders.
‘Symmetry of Interests’
“If there’s any symmetry of interests, it’s between Russia and South Korea,” Armstrong said. “They have the most in common in how they envision development of the region.”
A significant part of that development is Russia’s growing role in Asia as an energy supplier.
Russia is building an oil pipeline across eastern Siberia to the Pacific and is planning two gas pipelines to China.
Developments on Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, are opening up additional energy resources nearby.
A pipeline with Sakhalin gas that would follow the path of the railway into North Korea has been under consideration by OAO Gazprom, Russia’s state-run, gas-export monopoly.
“Russia’s ability to project its economic power, especially through oil and gas pipelines, would be greatly enhanced if political tensions between the Koreas declined and they moved to unification,” Harrison said.
Even the railway, Russia’s most advanced infrastructure project in North Korea, may be thwarted by the unpredictability of Kim Jong Il.
“The risks are too high,” said Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “All this can be discussed only in a united Korea, after a serious change in regime.”