Russian President Putin is set to arrive in Seoul with a long list of issues, including plans for a rail link that could ultimately link Europe to South Korean ports. The main stumbling block is likely to be Pyongyang.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to pay a state visit to South Korea today, November 12, where he will meet with President Park Guen-hye. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg in September and have a full agenda for their two days of discussions in Seoul, including ways of improving bilateral ties, ensuring peace and stability on the fractious Korean peninsula and stepping up cooperation and exchanges.
Putin, however, is particularly keen on a project that could bring major economic and geo-political benefits to Russia: the long-debated plan to connect the furthest reaches of Western Europe with Busan, the South Korean port on the very tip of the peninsula, by railway.
This route would primarily follow the existing Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to the Russian Far East before crossing into North Korea on the short stretch of border that the two nations share, continuing south, traversing the so-called Demilitarized Zone that is the border between North and South and finally ending up in Busan, the largest container ship hub in Asia.
By linking the markets and manufacturing bases in both Western Europe and the Far East, the 8,000 km route would open up vast economic opportunities more cheaply, at less risk and, even more importantly, far faster than the present shipping routes through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.
In theory, the project seems straightforward and completely feasible. There are parallel discussions on a fuel pipeline following the same route. But there is a reason why a project that has been under discussion for more than a decade is only now inching towards fruition.
"This plan has been on the drawing board for some time, but it is being held up by commitment problems," Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, told DW.
"The project makes complete sense for North Korea because it would generate much-needed revenue and it could happen largely in isolation from the North Korean people, but there will be some concerns," he said.
The North Korean government was fiercely criticized by Seoul for unilaterally shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Park in May. The facility had employed thousands of North Korean workers, earned millions for the regime in Pyongyang and been seen as a model project for inter-Korean relations, but was shut down in a fit of Pyongyang pique.
Moscow will have to ensure that it has leverage over North Korea before it commits to going ahead with the plan, said Pinkston, just in case a political issue does crop up and Pyongyang reneges on any earlier promises - although the North's closest ally, China, can testify to just how difficult it is to get Kim Jong-un's to behave reasonably.
Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an expert on North Korean affairs, believes Pyongyang's record of obfuscation and broken promises means that it will be hard for any potential partners to have full faith in the project.
Who will pay?
"The first question will have to be who will pay," Shigemura told DW. "The Russians don't want to and the North Koreans won't agree to, so it will be down to the South Koreans, which won't be popular. And then once the rail link is operational, Russia and South Korea will have to pay Pyongyang for it to run through North Korea," he pointed out. "Once the investment has been made, the North could set the price at whatever it wanted and they would have to pay."
Yet, another inevitable concern would be that the North could tap into the pipeline and siphon off oil or natural gas for its own ends.
"Basically, this would be a very good agreement and it should be simple to go ahead with it, but the implementation is very difficult," Shigemura said.
Moving towards progress
Russia is, nevertheless, edging towards a deal with North Korea, and in September completed the rail link between the city of Khasan and Rason, the North Korean port that is listed as a "Special Economic Zone."
"Putin's interest in the Far East is increasing in direct proportion to his deteriorating relationship with the United States and as Europe makes more strident efforts to wean itself off Russian energy," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"He is playing every diplomatic card that he has and is trying to enhance Russia's presence in the Far East and to extend its economic interests. And if he could actually manage to push this railroad project through, then I think it could be a stabilizing force on the peninsula and permit Russia to play a larger geopolitical role," he said.
"But it does always come back to the actions of the North," Jun Okumura conceded. "They could simply decide one day to shut it down, no matter what other countries say or do."