[DPRK leader Kim Jong Il made headlines again as he traveled to Russia for talks with President Medvedev. What was the purpose of this trip, and what’s in it for the Russians? CanKor Brain Trust member Jeremy Paltiel, Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, looks at the possibility of a win-win outcome for all sides. –CanKor.]
For months now, Kim Jong-il has been trying without success to escape from the international straitjacket he imposed on himself since the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. He has appealed for international aid without much response. He has offered unconditional talks with the US; he has alternately engaged and threatened the ROK, most recently evicting South Koreans form the Mt Kumgang “Peace Village”; he has visited China on three occasions… all of which seemed only to magnify his isolation and dependence on his sole ally. With only four months until his beleaguered garrison satrapy is slated to become a “strong and prosperous country” he ventured back to the land of his birth, travelling to the Russian Far East to meet Russian President Medvedev. Russia has been eager to get back into the game without antagonizing its partners in the Six Party talks or throwing good money after bad on an unreliable former client.
Upholding a return to the Six Party process as a condition, Russia has refloated the prospect of a gas pipeline to South Korea transiting DPRK. (See: “N. Korean leader Kim Jong Il arrives in Russia ahead of Medvedev meeting”)
This would not only unlock desperately needed energy supplies, with a sightseeing visit to Bureyskaya power plant, the largest hydro-electric plant in the Russian Far East, as an added enticement. It would also provide much coveted transit fees for energy delivered to South Korea, providing the resources Kim needs to buy support for his ruling family. For Russia, it would extend the pipeline strategy it has used to rebuild itself as a Great Power to the Far East, bringing development to its languishing Far Eastern region and leveraging its own dependence in the region on energy exports to China. This is clearly a “win-win” strategy for all sides, signalled by China’s nod to allow Kim to transit Chinese territory on his return home. (See: “N Korean Leader Transits China on Return Trip from Russia”)
If only… Kim is ready to live up to previous commitments to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and refrain from military provocations. Significantly, just as it was in Kim’s previous visit to China, the idea of returning to the Six Party Talks was conveyed to the Russian side but no commitment was registered in the DPRK’s own media. (See: “North Korea may return to nuclear talks, Russia says”)
South Korean response was favourable. (See this editorial in the normally hardline Chosun Ilbo: “Russian Gas Pipeline Could Improve Inter-Korean Ties”)
It remains to be seen whether Kim is ready to concede or whether he is still hoping again for a generous down-payment on endlessly postponed commitments. With only a few months to go before his father’s centenary, Kim is running out of options. Nonetheless, with even Lee Myung-bak’s hardline government frustrated by its lack of results, and a studied Washington policy of “benign neglect” or “show us the money”, the time may be ripe for a new initiative.