Russia Hosts North Korea with Eye on South Korea
In December 1949 Mao Tse-tung came to Russia to visit Stalin. He chose to come by rail rather than by air and according to some interpretations, that was due to well-grounded suspicions about his host.
This week North Korea's so-called "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il, has journeyed to Russia using an armored train. The beloved "Dear Leader' is apparently suspicious of everybody. He will be meeting on Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
According to reports from both Russia and South Korea, Medvedev will be offering Kim is the prospect of a gas pipeline passing via North Korea and terminating in South Korea. This will result in an extensive injection of hard currency for a regime that desperately needs the cash as the hundred year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Song --the founder of the North Korean communist regime--approaches.
Another proposal, essentially reviving a 2001 proposal when relations between the Koreas were better, is to extend the trans-Siberian Railroad via North Korea to South Korea with the advantage of modernizing the North Korean railroad infrastructure.
Additional offerings to North Korea could take the form of increased shipments of grain and perhaps assistance in the North Korean Special Economic Zone.
When Dmitry Medvedev sits down across from North Korea's Kim, he will have both Koreas in mind. It will be a diplomatic coup for the Russians if they use the economic sweeteners to bring North Korea back to the table on the nuclear issue. The North Koreans would like to alter a situation where they are almost exclusively dependent upon China.
If Medvedev is able to persuade his guests to cooperate, the outcome can be a significant expansion of Russian ties with South Korea, a major economic and technological power. South Korea needs energy and Russia's energy resources are primarily concentrated in the East. This includes oil and gas as well as hydroelectric power that could also be routed via North Korea.
If the rail deal became a reality, South Korea would effectively be linked by land to Europe with the accompanying trade advantages.
The allure of a land bridge was illustrated last week when the United States and Russia agreed to a $100 billion tunnel crossing the Bering Sea and linking Siberia to Alaska. The projection is that such a railroad would pay for itself in two decades.
The South Korean connection requires much less investment, as there is already an existing rail link from Vladivostok to North Korea and a rail link connecting North and South Korea, so that the economic benefit is incontrovertible.
Russia would also like to demonstrate to South Korea that it, rather than the United States and China, is a power that can make the North Koreans see reason. This, too, can cement relations between Moscow and Seoul.