Any foreign trip by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arouses a great deal of interest, as he practically never leaves his country. The only exceptions are his relatively regular trips to China and also a tour of Russia ten years ago. Therefore, his current visit to Siberia is an extraordinary event.
Still, a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely. The regime in Pyongyang remains very idiosyncratic. But even if the trip fails to produce any direct results (they will not be announced in any case), it still creates a chance that the political deadlock on the Korean Peninsula will be broken. Just attempting to do so is important, because the previous approach has not worked.
Since the first half of the 1990s, when the North Korean nuclear program became an item on the international agenda, negotiations have gone through different stages but the basic model has remained unchanged. Outside forces have always perceived Pyongyang as an aberration that survived the collapse of socialism, one that poses a clear threat to its neighbors. In turn, North Korea has continued to project an image of extravagant outcast that is capable of anything, because in the opinion of its top leaders this is the only way to protect the regime against pressure, not to mention overthrow. North Korea has been building up its potential to the best of its ability and in the most ostentatious way so as to prevent anyone from even being tempted to test its strength. Western countries and South Korea pursued a carrot-and-stick policy. But the pressure they exerted on Pyongyang only radicalized the regime, even though the country needed economic assistance to stave off disaster. North Korea quickly learned that blackmail can do the trick.
However, the belief that North Korea is intimidating others with the sole purpose of extracting economic benefits has led Washington and Seoul down the wrong road. Under the current model, North Korea is promised lavish aid in exchange for renouncing its nuclear and missile programs. This could have worked 15 years ago. But since the late 1990s – after the events in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – Pyongyang has viewed its nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of its security rather than as a bargaining chip. This is why it considers this exchange unequal. North Korea’s relationship with the international community is caught in a vicious circle, with tensions running higher and higher in bad time and crises becoming increasingly dangerous. Suffice it to recall the testing of nuclear weapons and missiles, the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. None of these cases have been fully cleared up.
Russia has proposed a new approach that would change the paradigm. The construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to the south of the Korean Peninsula would change Pyongyang’s status. A sponger prone to blackmail could become a partner in a major project, as was the case with Ukraine in relation to Russia and Georgia to Azerbaijan. North Korea would get not only gas but also transit fees. But, most important, it will be brought into a system of economic interdependence that could drastically change the atmosphere in the region.
Numerous obstacles stand in the way of realizing this project. First, Pyongyang’s behavior follows some logic (contrary to views in the West), its vigilance bordering on paranoia carries the risk of surprises. Second, Seoul may not be happy about the deal. South Korea would also stand to gain from the project both politically and commercially, but its government headed by Lee Myung-bak is highly critical of the reconciliation policy of his predecessors and has taken a hardline towards its northern neighbor. Third, the U.S. attitude is not quite clear.
The Russian proposal creates an opportunity for progress. There has been no progress in a long time, and it would be in everyone’s interest to make some. But East Asia is too important, especially in light of China’s growing influence, and Washington does not want to lose the initiative. The question is whether the United States will interpret the Russian proposal as an attempt to seize the initiative. China should not object, because it welcomes anything that can reduce tensions and consolidate the status quo.
For Russia, this Korean project is a real chance to enhance its position in Asia, which will be its main goal in the next few years. Moscow enjoys the advantage of being viewed as a neutral force by both Koreas, and this suggests that progress is possible.