A late August visit by the socialist Korean leader Comrade Kim Jong Il to the Siberian and far eastern regions of Russia, for a summit meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, has served to positively transform both the security situation on the Korean peninsula and the economic prospects for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Kim Jong Il visited Russia and the northeast region of China between 20-27 August. It was his fourth visit to China in 16 months and his first to Russia since 2002.
At his summit with Medvedev, held on 24 August in the city of Ulan Ude, the capital of the autonomous republic of the Buryat Mongol people, Kim Jong Il reiterated his willingness to rejoin the six-party talks, which aim at the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and which have been stalled since 2009, at any time and without preconditions.
This is currently the common position of the DPRK, China and Russia. The other three parties, the United States, Japan and south Korea, have been refusing to return to the negotiating table, insisting on a series of preconditions that, if met, would undermine the DPRK’s sovereignty and security, and which consequently the socialist country will never accept.
The other noteworthy feature of the summit was two major economic agreements: to construct a pipeline for the supply of natural gas from the Russian far east to south Korea, transiting north Korea, and to modernise the DPRK’s railway system, linking it more effectively to Russia.
The gas pipeline, in which the energy-starved south Korean economy would have a vital interest, would secure billions in economic benefits to the DPRK, through infrastructure projects, transit fees and a share of the gas. As a shortage of energy, essentially because of US-led sanctions, lies at the root of all the economic problems faced by the DPRK, including food shortages, this agreement, if it were to become reality, would literally transform the DPRK’s economy.
Likewise, the railway modernisation project, focused on the port of Rason, in one of the DPRK’s special economic zones, would dramatically shorten, and hence make more economical, the transhipment time of goods from north and south Korea, eastern Russia, northeast China, Japan and Mongolia, to Europe. Rason is practically the only year-round ice-free port in the entire region.
Summing up the results of the summit from their national perspective, two prominent Russian scholars of the region, Alexander Vorontsov and Oleg Revenko, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote:
“Moscow does not believe in the myth of Kim Jong Il’s ‘unpredictability’ and ‘irrationalism’. Instead, it considers the north Korean government’s recent actions to fit into a certain logic, which may look quite tough and unusual in terms of a western liberal mentality.
“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, however it may affect the global non-proliferation regime, is the only guarantee north Korea has that it will not meet the same fate as states like Yugoslavia or Libya, which were chosen by the West as targets. To stop north Korea’s nuclear activity, the international community should try to decrease Pyongyang’s sense of acute insecurity by diplomatic means, including restarting the six-party talks.” (‘Russia-north Korea: Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’, Strategic Cultural Foundation, 17 September 2011)
What is exceptionally noteworthy is the rapid follow-up at working level of the agreements reached at the summit of Korean and Russian leaders. Last month, the DPRK’s oil minister visited Moscow for successful talks with the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, as well as with his counterparts from south Korea. And it was announced that Russian Railways will run its first test service on the new line to Rason this month.
It has also been reported that Russia has agreed to write off the DPRK’s estimated debt of some US$11bn, most of which dates back to the Soviet era. According to the reported formula, largely based on an earlier agreement reached between Russia and Vietnam, 90 percent of the debt will be written off, while the remaining 10 percent will be reinvested in joint projects in the DPRK.
But by far the worst news for Washington has been the announcement that Russia and the DPRK will resume joint naval exercises – the first of their kind since the 1980s. This also follows a top-level Chinese naval goodwill visit to the DPRK in August. According to the Russian military, the DPRK and Russia will hold joint naval drills in the East Sea of Korea in 2012, with a focus on sea rescue and humanitarian missions in response to natural disasters.
In a barbed response, the US State Department said: “Any engagement with the north Koreans should be conducted in a way that does not detract from the international community’s clear message of concern about the north’s weapons programmes.”
However, despite the US stance, there are also signs at last of a return to a more realistic position on the part of the south Korean authorities. As well as the obvious attraction and importance of the planned gas pipeline, 2012 will be a presidential election year in south Korea and President Lee Myung Bak has nothing to show for his last three-and-a-half years of unrelenting hostility to the compatriots in the north.
Besides the economic discussions in Moscow, south Korea’s leading conductor has visited the north and an agreement has been reached for the national orchestras of north and south to perform in Seoul and Pyongyang respectively. Subsequently, the leaders of south Korea’s seven biggest religious communities paid a visit to the north, and, most significantly, the chief nuclear negotiators of north and south Korea met in Beijing.
All this demonstrates that the DPRK’s skilled stance of combining strategic firmness with tactical flexibility is paying dividends, and particularly that the DPRK’s position, despite the misguided views held by some people, is greatly strengthened when it can preserve and develop its traditional strong and friendly ties with both China and Russia.