North Korea: An Emerging Regional Crossroads

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), an interesting analysis of North Korea’s potential as a regional crossroads in Asia:

North Korea has attracted increased attention in recent weeks, less for its nuclear potential or missile tests and more for its potential as a transportation and energy corridor. On April 18, the lower house of Russia’s parliament ratified a September 2012 agreement between Moscow and Pyongyang that forgives 90 percent of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt and sets up a repayment schedule for the remaining $1.09 billion over 20 years. Russia would use these funds to develop infrastructure projects in North Korea, particularly transportation and energy initiatives like a possible natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to South Korea. And on April 21, the CEO of South Korean railroad firm Korail boarded a train in China to travel to North Korea to attend a meeting of the Organization for Cooperation Between Railways and possibly discuss connecting South Korea’s railways through the North to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.

The pipeline and rail connections are not new ideas; both have been discussed since at least the late 1990s. In 2007, the South and North reconnected a long-severed rail line to facilitate some cargo trade. In 2013, Russia completed work on a railway connecting North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone to the Russian city of Khasan as a possible step toward connecting the Korean Peninsula to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia’s Gazprom and South Korea’s state-run KOGAS have been in talks at least since 2008 to assess the feasibility of a pipeline that would transport some 10 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas annually, and the two sides decided to include Pyongyang in the talks in 2011. The following year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly began backing the pipeline idea, reiterating regime support for a project his father, Kim Jong Il, backed strongly during his 2011 visit to Russia — his last visit abroad before his death.

Without land routes through North Korea, South Korea is essentially an island nation, reliant on maritime trade for its energy and resource imports and manufacturing exports. Yet, with a hostile border, the South has been forced to balance its strategic resources between the threats posed by its northern neighbor and its requirements as a maritime state. Reliable access to routes passing through North Korea to Russia and China — and onward to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe — would offer South Korea alternatives for its international trade and begin to integrate the Korean Peninsula back into continental Eurasia. Further, such links could spur infrastructural development and economic activity in North Korea, possibly reducing tensions between the two Koreas and easing the economic burdens of any eventual reunification.

With its own interests in the Pacific frontier increasing, Moscow sees several possible benefits in strengthening its influence in the Korean Peninsula. In the mid-19th century, Russia competed with China and Japan for influence and control over Korea, both to counter its neighbors and to gain access to a long-sought connection to ice-free winter ports. Russia’s participation in the Rason Special Economic Zone highlights this continued interest, but Moscow also sees benefits in expanding economic relations with South Korea, both as a consumer of Russian resources and as an investor in Russia. Strengthening relations with Pyongyang gives Moscow at least a small amount of additional political leverage with neighboring China (due to Beijing’s interest in maintaining North Korea as a strategic buffer), as well as with the United States regarding influence over the North’s continued nuclear and missile development. Moscow is also seeking to exploit strains in relations between South Korea and the United States, stressing the U.S. alliance structure in East Asia as a counterbalance to U.S. strategic moves in Europe and elsewhere along the Russian periphery.

With Russia and South Korea finding common interest in cooperating in and around North Korea, Pyongyang appears to be the greatest beneficiary of the rising regional interest. Any pipeline or rail link between South Korea and Eurasia would be vulnerable to North Korean interdiction. Though Seoul will avoid becoming over-dependent on such links for this very reason — and though Russia will threaten reductions in energy and economic assistance if the North carries out such actions — Pyongyang will still be able to drive a hard bargain with its neighbors, gaining additional economic concessions and investments. Already, North Korea is seeing growing interest from other quarters: Japan is re-engaging in talks with the North that could lead to a normalization of relations, or at least reductions in sanctions. China and the United States have discussed reducing the requirements on the North to restart stalled talks within the six-party framework (which also includes Russia, Japan and South Korea). Indian, European and Russian businesses are showing interest in greater investment in the North.

This is not to say that things are about to become drastically different on the Korean Peninsula. In recent weeks, North Korea has issued statements declaring its intent to continue testing its nuclear deterrents. It has also made conspicuous activity at its nuclear test site visible to international satellite observation. Just as South Korea cannot be entirely confident that North Korea will not interfere in any new pipeline or rail development, Pyongyang cannot put excessive faith in the goodwill of its neighbors or the United States.

Historically, the Korean Peninsula has often been the focal point of intense competition among regional powers. After bitter fighting in the 1200s, the Mongols used Korea as the launching point for their ultimately failed invasion of Japan. In the 1500s, a newly unified Japan tried to alter the Asian status quo by trying to invade China via the peninsula. In the mid-19th century, China, Japan and Russia competed over control of Korea, while the Americans, French and Germans sought to break open and exploit the peninsula as part of their regional empires. With tensions rising between China and Japan, the United States “pivoting” toward Asia and Russia renewing its own interest in the Far East, the Korean Peninsula is once again emerging as a zone of intense competition among much broader regional and global forces.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 21st, 2014 at 7:06 pm and is filed under North Korea.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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