By Kim Myong Chol
The Associated Press reported August 24 that a beaming North Korean leader Kim Jong-il thanked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for flying from the Black Sea port of Sochi to meet him in Siberia.
"When it comes to meetings with our partners, neighbors, it's not that far," Medvedev said.
"Thanks to your special attention and care, Mr President, we're having a fun trip," Kim replied through a translator.
Six major factors led Kim Jong-il to describe his August 21-27 journey across Siberia and northeast China as fun. He travelled by rail, but may have felt as if he was walking on air.
The first is a least-noticed fact - that the Dear Leader's military-first policy
and the presence of the heir-designate back in North Korea have created inner stability in the North that means Kim Jong-il can travel overseas without worry, whenever it is necessary.
Kim's trip came as the Americans were engaged in the provocative 10-day, nine-nation war games Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Held from August 16-25 and involving some 530,000 troops, these simulated an invasion of North Korea, the capture of its leadership and the installation of a pro-American regime. (See HREF="http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/MH20Dg01.html">Dangerous games, Asia Times Online, August 24, 2011.)
His trip also coincided with major events in the US-led war on Libya that proved the Americans still capable of aggressive regime change.
Kim's "fun trip" represents validation of the military-first policy that has catapulted North Korea towards nuclear-armed power status. While Kim Jong-il was away, Kim Jong-eun was fully in charge, showing his leadership credentials by ensuring stability in Pyongyang and firmly defending the country from trigger-happy Americans.
Kim Jong-eun's leadership has brought home to the Korean people, the Workers' Party of Korea membership and the rank and file of the Korean People's Army how lucky they are to have the "young general" as a heaven-sent heir to Kim Jong-il.
A second factor making Kim's journey being so much "fun" was the "higher stage" reached in Pyongyang's relations with Moscow and Beijing during the trip. The journey could be characterized as a honeymoon railway trip between North Korea and the Russians and Chinese, particularly given the red carpet treatment Kim was afforded by both.
Agence France-Presse reported August 24: "Russian officials have pulled out all the stops for the high-profile visit which has seen Kim rumble across Siberia along the famed Trans-Siberian railway from the Pacific since crossing the border into Russia at the weekend.
The selection of Ulan Ude, capital city of the Republic of Buryatia in the Amur region, as a meeting place for the country's leaders was significant. The city is virtually a midway point between Moscow and Pyongyang.
President Medvedev flew from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi to travel to Ulan Ude, which lies 5,000 km east of Moscow. He arrived at the Sosnovy Bor military base in Ulan Ude more than four hours before the summit with Kim Jong-il.
The Russian leader walked up to the limousine carrying the North Korean leader to greet him, and personally saw him off after a successful summit.
Medvedev had authorized top-ranking officials and regional leaders to cordially meet and accompany Kim Jong-il and his entourage from August 20 to 25 all the way from the Russo-North Korean border city of Khasan to Ulan Ude, as well as on Kim's way towards the border with China.
The Russian officials were Viktor Ishayev, presidential envoy to the Far East Region of the Russian Federation, Sergey Darikin, governor of Maritime Territory, Valery Sukhinin, Russian ambassador to the DPRK, Irina Skorobogatova, deputy governor of Maritime Territory, and other senior officials at various levels of Moscow and maritime territory.
In China, President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders took the trouble to authorize Dai Bingguo, state councilor of China to warmly greet the North Korean leader as he passed through northeast China on his way home.
During his August 25-27 tour of northeast China, Kim was accompanied by two top-ranking Chinese officials: Wang Jiarui, head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Sheng Guangzu, the railways minister.
The North's Korean Central News Agency reported on August 28: "Kim Jong-il was accorded a sincere and warm welcome by senior central and regional officials and people of China wherever he went while passing through northeast China for three days and got deeply familiar with the customs and living of the people."
A third reason for the trip's success was North Korea place on the cusp of a dramatic leap towards joining the club of flourishing nations. This has been achieved without a massive infusion of aid from the US, access to the US market and despite the lack of normalized relations with the US, Japan and South Korea.
In other words, the once noisily publicized American aid-for-disarmament program and security has lost its appeal. Writing in an August 18 Foreign Policy magazine article, "60 Years of Failed Sanctions," two Korea experts noted:
"Many Korea experts argue that these new prohibitions will not affect North Korea as intended, and sanctions policies will continue to fail to meet their objectives. For 60 years, Washington has tirelessly advocated that sanctions against the North will eventually incentivize the regime to change its foreign policy agenda and domestic behavior. This approach, however, has proven to have had a negligible impact"
Presented before the world audience is a striking contrast between the young tiger of North Korea's economy and the moribund leviathan of the US. The mortally wounded "world's policeman" is in the process of being kicked out of its superpower spot.
The US, unable to pay its debts and creating zero jobs, is no longer a functioning state.
Bloomberg on August 11 quoted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as calling the near-default US "a parasite on the global economy" as Russian gobbles up its debt.
Putin said to a youth camp outside Moscow on August 1 that the US was "living beyond its means and shifting part of the weight of its problems onto the world economy, acting to some extent as a parasite on the global economy and its dollar monopoly position".
The New York Times on September 13 quoted as the Census Bureau as reporting that a record 46.2 million Americans (twice the North Korea population) are living in poverty, referring to a "lost decade".
The Washington Post reported September 14, "Nearly one in six Americans was living in poverty last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, a development that is ensnaring growing numbers of children and offering vivid proof of the recession’s devastating impact."
The Los Angeles Times reported September 13, "The worst of it has been widely reported: From 2009 to 2010 poverty was up, median household income was down, and the number of people living without health insurance grew from 49 million to 49.9 million."
A fourth source of happiness for Kim's journey is the emergence of North Korea as a trade and energy hub, serving as a non-freezing seaport and railway link that awakens the economic potential of the sparsely-populated resource-rich Russian Siberia and landlocked resource-rich northeast China.
The New York Times August 21 quoted analysts in Seoul as noting: "Mutual economic and political interests are bringing the leaders of Russia and North Korea together."
Moscow has taken a strategic policy decision to push for improved North-South Korean relations to facilitate its expanded East Asian presence. Russia has decided to shift away East Asia from the influence of the US and Europe as the both struggle to find a way out of their economic shambles.
This was predicted in the Reuters story, "Railway Tsar Says Russian Trade Shifts to Asia," published on September 15, 2010.
"Russian trade is rapidly shifting to booming Asia from troubled Europe, the head of the railroad monopoly Russian Railways said on Wednesday, challenging European leaders to adapt to change.
"In the end of 2008, beginning 2009 our cargo flows shifted. The main volumes went to Far Eastern ports because shippers have reoriented toward Southeast Asian markets," Yakunin told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit."
Bloomberg reported August 21:
"Moscow-based Gazprom wants to diversify away from Europe to gain revenue from faster-growing Asian markets. The company plans to sign a so-called road map to supply South Korea by pipeline in the near future, it said on Aug. 5. Supplies may start in 2017, Gazprom has said.
"Russia has also proposed a railway project that would connect the Trans-Siberian Railway to South Korea via North Korea, opening up an "Iron Silk Road" that would cut the shipping costs of South Korean companies to Europe. "
Russian officials told the New York Times August 21 that such deals estimated to involve not less than $100 billion "will help develop the country's sparsely populated Far East."
Two major stumbling blocks stand in the way of better relations between North and South Korea, and the railway and gas pipeline projects that could take place if these are improved: One is the ultra-hard-line North Korea policy of the South Korean Lee Myung-Bak government, which has reversed the rapprochement policy of the preceding two governments. The second is the hostile North Korea policy of the US government of Barack Obama, which supports the Lee government.
The August 24 summit between Kim Jong-il and Dmitry Medvedev "proceeded in a sincere and friendly atmosphere from start to end," the KCNA reported August 24:
"The Russian president expressed support to the positive measures taken by the DPRK to defend the peace and security of Northeast Asia, develop the economy to suit the specific conditions of the country and improve the standard of the people's living. He expressed the belief that the Korean people would register greater successes in the building of a prosperous and powerful nation under the leadership of Kim Jong-il.
[The two leaders] exchanged their views on developing the bilateral relations and reached a consensus of views on all the issues discussed."
The talks discussed a series of agenda items on boosting the economic and cooperative relations in various fields including the issue of energy including gas and the issue of linking railways and reached a common understanding of them.
It was decided at the talks to organize and operate working groups to put the above-said issues into practice and the two countries agreed to continue cooperating with each other in this direction."
The sixth factor is the good publicity Kim's visit has generated for the Russian and Chinese leaders. There is no better showcase for the Trans-Siberian and Chinese railways.
Russia has long hoped to draw world attention to a project that aims to develop the sparsely-populated, resource-rich Siberia into a flourishing region and publicize the attractive Trans-Siberian Railway, but in vain.
Siberia lacks three vital things: an effective source of publicity means, a non-freezing harbor and a railway connection to a trans-Korean railway. North Korea finds itself in a unique position to help.
No foreign leaders can expect to generate greater world media attention for the Trans-Siberian Railway and Siberia than Kim. This was also the case with Chinese leaders and their railway in northeast China.
Other areas of China and especially coastal areas have been developed only because they have harbors. But resource-rich northeast China is landlocked. The July 23 high-speed railway crash in China's eastern Zhejiang province raised new questions about the safety of the country's fast-growing railway network. Kim Jong-il's fun trip through northeast China was a timely image boost for the restoration underway of the Chinese railways....
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Late on the evening of August 30, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, as part of a mini-reshuffle affecting four cabinet positions, finally replaced his long-term hardline unification minister, former academic Hyun In-taek. With Lee's characteristic cronyism, the man nominated to replace Hyun was another of his close advisers - geography professor Yu Woo-ik, once Lee's chief of staff in the Blue House and latterly South Korea's ambassador to China.
Despite the usual pro forma insistence that this does not mean any change of policy - Hyun was retained, notionally, as a special adviser on unification - the Seoul press was unanimous that this appointment signals a shift in strategy or tactics toward the North for the final third of Lee's term of office.
Elected on December 19, 2007 and in post since February 25, 2008, Lee is restricted to a single five-year term. That stipulation in the Constitution of the Sixth Republic, promulgated with the restoration of democracy in 1987, was meant to prevent any would-be dictators from prolonging their stay in office ad infinitum, as military strongman Park Chung-hee (1961-79) did with his Yushin constitution in 1972 (the Fourth Republic).
But perhaps the democrats went too far. In some ways South Korea's presidency remains too strong. Thus it is the president who appoints the cabinet, and except for the prime minister, the National Assembly's approval is not required. Yet these imperial powers last a mere five years - or in practice less, since the electoral cycle creates its own structural pressures.
In modern media-driven democracies, political campaigning has become quasi-permanent. Thus Republic of Korea (ROK) presidents must struggle to avoid becoming a lame duck as their five years draw toward a close, and attention increasingly shifts to the race to succeed them. Many in Seoul favor a shift to a US-style system: presidential elections every four years instead of five, but permitting a second term so as to avoid the lame duck effect.
An added advantage is that this would align presidential elections with parliamentary ones, which are on a separate four-year cycle. Such a change in theory has wide bipartisan support, and now would have been the ideal time to make the shift since next year the two elections almost coincide with parliamentary in April, followed by presidential in December. But bad blood between the two main parties - Lee's conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP), and the liberal opposition Democrats (DP) - means that it is almost certainly too late now for this time around.
This excursus is not a digression. For better or worse, electoral calculation was probably a major factor in Hyun's ouster and will drive whatever policy shifts may follow. The straws had been in the wind for some time. In by-elections on April 27, the ruling party won only one of the four seats up for grabs. It was especially shocked when Sohn Hak-kyu, the moderate (indeed ex-GNP) and electable-looking newish head of the DP, snatched a seat in wealthy Bundang, just south of Seoul, which had never voted other than conservative before.
As is the way in South Korea (but emphatically not in the North), the GNP leadership fell on their swords to take responsibility for the defeat. Moreover, in electing their successors the party faithful delivered a further blow of their own to the embattled president. Repudiating his faction - or rather factions, for even Lee's supporters were divided - on July 4, they voted for a maverick and outspoken backbencher, Hong Joon-pyo, as the party's new chairman.
Hong lost no time in distancing himself from some cherished policies (such as tax cuts) of a president whom he characterized as "good at everything ... but bad at politics". Specifically, he called for a fresh approach to North Korea. By August 29, amid rumors of an impending mini-reshuffle, Hong let it be known via a well-placed press leak that at a breakfast meeting with President Lee he had pushed "strongly" for a change of unification minister, since Hyun In-taek was so firmly identified as a hard-liner. Hyun was sacked the next day; read on.
The Cheonan's legacy lingers
Also in play is the lingering legacy of last year's twin Northern attacks on the South - the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November. These events left Lee wounded on several fronts. Both assaults exposed failures in the ROK's defenses.
Lee's failure to retaliate forcefully, while prudent, laid him open to charges of weakness. (Heaven help us if Pyongyang should try it a third time; it would be political suicide were Lee again to hold his fire, but a risk of national suicide if he blasts back with all barrels.)
Some also drew wider policy lessons. Many in the DP and those further left - who are not a negligible force in the ROK - blamed Lee for provoking Pyongyang by his hard line. Upon coming to office, and despite promising a pragmatic approach, Lee at once repudiated the economic cooperation agreed by his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun at the second Pyongyang summit in October 2007. In this writer's view, as readers of past issues will know, this was regrettable since the new plans were no longer one-sided aid, but potentially win-win.
All this is of course a matter of judgment, and no excuse for the DPRK's vile aggression. But we knew the nature of the beast of old. The question is, what works? After three and a half years, Lee Myung-bak's strict conditionality - no serious aid unless Kim Jong-il gives up his nuclear weapons, something which almost no analyst believes he will ever really do however logical and fair in theory - has neither advanced inter-Korean relations nor rendered the peninsula a safer place. So it is hardly surprising that Lee is now rethinking his approach even if his motives - and that of his party - for doing so are more self-serving than strategic.
Below the surface
But we risk running ahead. A whole tetramester elapsed before Lee's U-turn, if such it be, so there are other events to record first. As always, this narrative account barely scratches the surface. I do hope that readers, even if pressed for time, will also delve into the granularity - to use a management buzzword - afforded by the chronology.
Even now, despite the poor state of inter-Korean relations in the main, below the surface all manner of varied pond life continues to dart about. For instance, it was established that North Koreans are entitled to sue in South Korean courts for their share of the inheritance of a parent who had fled to the South and remarried. That matters, both now and especially in the future.
Chronologically, in the month of May - as we now know, but didn't at the time - there was more going on than met the eye. President Lee spent a week (May 8-14) visiting Germany, Denmark, and France. In Berlin, a major theme was about sharing ideas and experience on reunification.
This predictably infuriated North Korea, whose Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 16 lambasted "traitor Lee Myung-bak" for his "daydream of 'emerging a victor' in the confrontation of systems". Lee publicly invited, or perhaps challenged, Kim Jong-il to come to the second global Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), which Seoul is due to host next March. There was just one small condition: North Korea must commit itself to denuclearization and apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents.
Begging for it?
It was hard to see this offer as serious. But in fact there was more going on below the surface. On June 1, Pyongyang chose to reveal, in detail, what had long been suspected. Despite harsh words in public, behind the scenes the two Koreas had held secret talks. Indeed, the North claimed it was the South that since April had "begged" for talks, which were eventually held in Beijing from May 9.
They named the ROK officials involved as Kim Chun-sig of the Ministry of Unification's (MOU) Policy Office; Hong Chang-hwa, a director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS); and President Lee's deputy national security advisor, Kim Tae-hyo. In implicit corroboration, all three switched off their mobile phones and went to ground as soon as the story broke in Seoul, too much embarrassment all round.
The North's version, attributed to a spokesman for its National Defense Commission (NDC) - the DPRK's top executive body - was typically irate in tone. Inter alia it accused "the Lee Myung-bak group of traitors" of being "master hands at fabrications as they cook up lies and deny what they have done and hooligans who renege on the promises made to the nation like a pair of old shoes".
Besides the insults, it went into detail on both the niceties of discussion and what the South was allegedly seeking. By this account, Seoul wanted a form of words that it could present as an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong, even if Pyongyang would deny making any such apology. This would have cleared the way for a three-stage series of meetings: first at the border village of Panmunjom in late June, then in Pyongyang two months later (ie, late August), and finally after quite a gap in Seoul in March next year when the ROK will host the second global Nuclear Security Summit (NSS).
Clearly it would be a huge coup if Kim Jong-il could be persuaded not only to come South at all, as he has never done, but to do so for the NSS where, presumably, he would renounce nuclear weapons and promise to be a good boy in the future, in exchange for a very fat check.
The whole idea is so ludicrous that one can only marvel at the Lee administration's endless capacity for fantasy and self-deception in its Nordpolitik. Nothing whatever in DPRK policy suggests there was the remotest chance of Kim Jong-il doing anything of the kind. Why on earth would he choose to boost a lame duck Southern president, when a year and a half from now the next incumbent of the Blue House will undoubtedly prove more accommodating?
A lesson from Libya
Also the timing could not have been worse. The only recent precedent for such a voluntary abjuration and surrender of WMD, which indeed used to be urged upon Kim Jong-il as an exemplar to follow, is Libya; enough said. Given the turn of events in that country weeks before the ROK's secret initiative, North Korea had not only drawn but uttered precisely the lesson one would expect them to, in this DPRK Foreign Ministry diatribe on March 22:
It was fully exposed before the world that "Libya's nuclear dismantlement" much touted by the US in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as "guarantee of security" and "improvement of relations" to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.
It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one's own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world. The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul professed not to know that the talks had been recorded, yet it is hardly surprising if they were.
The North also amplified a reference in its earlier statement to the South offering "enveloped money", ie, a bribe. (The South vaguely admitted offering to cover board and lodging costs for preliminary talks.) Such a charge is of course rank hypocrisy. Earlier North-South talks, in particular those that led to the first summit in 2000, saw Pyongyang blatantly demanding to be paid under the table. Regrettably Seoul complied, setting a bad precedent.
Landing another blow on Lee Myung-bak may have its satisfaction. However, 18 months hence a new leader will occupy the Blue House, who may well want to re-engage Pyongyang, but will now think twice, even more than one would anyway, about what basis there can be for trust. Rather than CBMs, not for the
first time North Korea seems perversely to prefer CDMs: confidence-destroying measures.
A one-off nuclear discussion
If June was sordid and bad-tempered, July brought one of those brief glimpses of bluer skies, which intermittently raise spirits and hopes on the peninsula. This is a metaphor; the actual weather was mostly unrelenting rain, culminating on July 27 in Seoul's fiercest daily downpour in history. Unusually the South's 60-odd fatalities, mostly from mudslides, may have been higher than those in the North, though the full extent of the damage there is not certain.
Five days earlier all was sunshine, at least on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali where on July 22 the two Koreas' chief nuclear negotiators unexpectedly held a two-hour bilateral meeting. They agreed to make joint efforts to resume the six-party talks (6PT) as soon as possible.
Both the South's Wi Sung-lac and the North's newly appointed Ri Yong Ho - not to be confused with the vice-marshal of the same name, the most powerful man in the KPA - called their discussion serious and constructive. This was the more unexpected, in that Pyongyang normally refuses to discuss the nuclear issue with Seoul, usually insisting that its only qualified interlocutor is Washington, or at a pinch the 6PT.
Next day, North and South Korea's foreign ministers, Pak Ui Chun and Kim Sung-hwan, met too, albeit much more briefly. Momentum appeared to be building only for the Blue House to scotch it. On July 24, an ROK presidential spokesman reverted to an old tune by insisting that the North must first of all clarify its position on last year's twin attacks on the ROK, and adding, "Just because a swallow has come does not mean spring is around the corner."
The wings of a hawk clipped
And yet it was (speaking metaphorically again). August brought change, and not only at the month's end. In a little-noticed move, on August 5 Suh Jae Jean failed to win a second three-year term as president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a leading think-tank on matters Northern under MOU.
A soft-spoken but firm sociologist, Suh published a book in 2009 called The Lee Myung-bak Government's North Korea Policy: a Study on its Historical and Theoretical Foundation. He argued that North Korea was bound to come back in from the cold because communist countries always do in the end. This argument paralleled what in Washington tends to be called "strategic patience"; the moral is stand firm, and wait.
Suh's successor at KINU, Kim Tae-woo, moved across from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) where he had been vice president. It was not long before he struck a rather different note. On Aug. 30, he told the ROK news agency Yonhap, "It is important for the government to show more flexibility without undermining its principles." One suggestion was dialogue for its own sake, as a prelude to full-fledged talks.
Similarly, South Korea's most popular politician, and maybe its next president, weighed in a few days earlier with a carefully timed and judged article in the US journal Foreign Affairs. Under the title "A New Kind of Korea," Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late Park Chung-hee, essayed a delicate balancing act. While demanding that any Northern provocations be met with a firm response, her main call - complete with a new slogan, crafted for memorability - was to build "trustpolitik" between North and South as an essential basis for progress.
Though a fellow conservative and former head of the GNP, Park has visited the North once, in 2002, when she was Kim Jong-il's dinner guest. Their fathers must have rolled in their graves. Here as elsewhere she is keen to strike a different note from and annoy Lee Myung-bak - they remain at odds, ever since he snatched the GNP's presidential nomination from her in 2007. How far either of them will take this enmity remains to be seen; it is not certain that Lee will endorse her as his successor, so deep does factional animosity run.
As noted above, electoral calculation is not the best basis on which to craft a North Korea policy. But Park, or those who advise her, must have decided it would play well now to sound a softer note. (And a fortiori, if the DP wins the presidency and forms the next government they will revert to some version of the old "Sunshine" policy, suitably rebranded and hopefully less one-sided.)
But it now looks as if a change of course in Seoul will not have to wait for 18 months and a new president. Dumping Hyun In-taek sends its own signal, despite his nominal retention as an adviser on unification issues. Hyun had been unification minister since January 2009, a long incumbency by ROK standards. Most ministers serve less than two years, which hardly seems good for continuity.
In Hyun's case, given the state of North-South relations, many had expected him to go in an earlier reshuffle in May. In a revealing vignette, credit for his survival then was claimed by Kim Jin, an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo, a leading center-right daily. By this account, he and a group of fellow conservatives, dining with Blue House advisers on the eve of the reshuffle, persuaded them that Hyun should be retained for fear Pyongyang would read any change as a sign that Lee Myung-bak was going soft. In that case presumably the converse also applies.
A pipeline in the pipeline?
Electoral calculation apart, the main reason for a policy change of course at this juncture can be found in Kim Jong-il's latest train journey, to Russia in late August. This journal focuses on bilateral relations, but sometimes a three-way dance is the point.
This is not the place for a full account of the Dear Leader's latest peregrinations, already well covered elsewhere - including for once by KCNA, which unusually reported the trip day by day rather than its customary ludicrous pretense that this wasn't happening till after it was over, as in his three recent visits to China. Perhaps Russia refused to put up with that nonsense.
The DPRK news agency chooses every word with care. One phrase it hardly ever uses is "the Republic of Korea". Searching on nk-news.net - not to be confused with nknews.org - reveals just 13 cases in 15 years. Two of these were in August, quoting Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, who met Kim Jong-il in Ulan Ude on Aug. 24.
The first came earlier, on August 15, when Medvedev's congratulatory message to "Esteemed Your Excellency Kim Jong-il" for Korea's Liberation Day included the phrase, "We have willingness to boost cooperation with the DPRK in all directions of mutual concern including a three-party plan encompassing Russia, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea in the fields of gasification, energy and railway construction."
KCNA could have chosen to paraphrase this or use reported speech. The fact that instead it used South Korea's official name sends a signal. So do the three areas specified for potential three-way cooperation. In reverse order, a freight route from South Korea to Siberia and on to Europe has long been a dream for some, including the late Kim Dae-jung who dubbed this an "iron silk road".
Indeed, on DJ's watch the actual lines were reconnected across the DMZ north of Seoul. But the North has let few trains run, and then only a mile or two as far as the joint venture at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). Moreover, any serious freight route would also have to spend billions upgrading North Korea's decrepit and obsolescent tracks.
As for energy, its importance for South Korea is clear from Lee Myung-bak's simultaneous travels; also to inner Asia, not far away. Kim's leisurely ground-bound trek crossed a single country - or two, if you count his transit via China on the way back. Meanwhile Lee, flying like normal leaders do, touched base with three key energy suppliers: Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, signing deals worth some $11 billion. But the ROK's thirst is insatiable, so there was excitement in Seoul that Kim Jong-il's first stop was the vast Bureya power plant in Amur region.
This plant generates more electricity than can be used locally and Moscow would like to sell some of it to either or both Korean states. Nothing specific was said about that on this occasion, but for Kim Jong-il to make that side-trip may also be a signal.
Gas, or hot air?
Above all, there is gas - or is it just hot air? The idea of a pan-peninsular gas pipeline goes back over 20 years. Hyundai's legendary founder, the northern-born Chung Ju-yung, never one to think small or short-term, suggested it in 1989 on his first visit to Pyongyang. Neither Korean state was yet ready for this, but almost two decades later in 2008 Russia's Gazprom and the ROK's KoGas signed a $90 billion MOU for the latter to buy 30 years' worth of gas from the former. This more or less presumes a pipeline, yet puzzlingly at the time Presidents Lee and Medvedev trumpeted it as if it could somehow be a purely bilateral deal.
Author Mike Green was recently quoted calling such a pipeline "an old Russian dream". In 2002, Medvedev's predecessor Vladimir Putin suggested this as a solution to concerns about uranium enrichment by the DPRK. Green's view is that "Seoul would be crazy to consider it, since the North could easily use the pipeline as leverage."
Crazy or not, some in Seoul are getting mighty excited. Perhaps predictably, they include GNP chairman Hong Joong-pyo, who has said that pipeline talks will start in November. All that Russia and North Korea have formally committed to is joint working groups; nor was it specified anywhere that these are to include South Korea. Amid feverish speculation, it may be prudent to wait until our next issue at the year's end to see whether all this is for real.
For now, the overall signals from Pyongyang are, as often, distinctly mixed. Currently all the assets that Chung Ju-yung and Hyundai poured almost a billion dollars into building at the Mount Kumgang tourist resort on the east coast are up for sale or rent, having been brazenly seized by the DPRK state as the ROK's freeze on tourism since the shooting of a tourist in July 2008 entered its fourth year.
This theft will be one of the first challenges for Yu Woo-ik in his new job. The old-style Lee MB would have gone on hanging tough, and damn the consequences, which include near-bankruptcy for the hapless Hyundai Asan. But now, with Yu joining the new chorus in Seoul singing the F word - flexibility - who knows?