Friday, November 4, 2011

Kim and Medvedev want to lay some pipe; Will they get stopcock-blocked by Kim Jong-il?


As I've previously noted, I've been rather busy lately. It's very time-consuming finding stories for the Los Angeles Times weeks or months before they appear in print. Like this one:
For newfound economic bedfellows South Korea and Russia, the biggest question over a proposed natural gas pipeline is a dark twist on the famous line from "Field of Dreams": If you build it, will North Korea mess with it?

South Korea President Lee Myung-bak this week met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg to discuss a project to pipe Siberian natural gas to the Korean peninsula.

The project faces numerous barriers beyond the region’s frigid cold, namely that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il — whose regime would also be served by the pipeline that runs the length of the nation — could decide to use the project for political leverage, shutting down the flow of gas just to mess with Seoul.

South Korea has good reason to worry. In recent years, it has taken a harder line on sending aid to the starving masses in North Korea until that country ceases provocative acts such as two recent attacks against the South.

Kim, always the political chess player, could use the pipeline for payback of old scores with South Korea. "Look, the gas is flowing. Oops, now it’s not!"
If this all sounds familiar, I said as much over two months ago...
Pyongyang notes that the high-tech pipeline would come equipped with a money spigot that will channel cash directly into Pyongyang vaults whenever the mainline is shut off.
... and again six weeks ago when I described the pipeline as a "win-win" situation:
And by that he means that the Pyongyang regime wins if they cooperate and keep it running, and they win if they go all high-jinks brinksmanship on Seoul by shutting it off.
But seriously, it is good to know that President Lee is soberly considering what all this means. A natural gas pipeline held hostage by the North could be a disaster for the South, causing Seoul to be held hostage to the whims of Kim Jong-il or his son (Ha! Like that will ever happen!) or the ruling junta that takes over after the Dear Leader kicks the bucket.

Is this a good idea? Do we really need a pipeline through frènemy* territory? South Korea makes loads of ships that could make regular runs of natural gas from Vladivostok to Pusan, so why not ship it through the East Sea (Sea of Japan) instead?

* Frènemy: In this case, not friend+enemy, but a portmanteau of frère and enemy, with that italicized word meaning brother. Hence the accent grave [`] in frènemy. Maybe I should write it frèrnemy to avoid any confusion. 



  1. Can't remember where the discussion was, but someone had noted that ships is already how Russian gas gets to Korea. So in the event of a nork shutdown ploy, they could just return to that more expensive option. Also it would seem prudent to have large storage facilities on the south side as well which could help mitigate disruptions. Still not a fan of the proposal but steps could be taken to help

  2. There is no reason for Korea to invest in that kind of pipeline unless it will SAVE them a lot of money in comparison to shipping the oil. If North Korea decides to block the pipeline, the South will lose its investment just like it did with Kaesong. As far as storing oil, I'm sure Korea already does that, but there is not a lot of land, so there is a limit to what can be done. I don't think South Korea should invest in this project as it will give the North another revenue source, which will keep the regime in operation. The world needs to block off all economic support to the North so that the regime crumbles without the support necessary to maintain itself. There should be no investment in any project that benefits the North Korean leadership.

  3. Anonymous, you make a good point that we can always go back to having our natural gas shipped, but I think it's a bit more complicated than that.

    After that much investment, what will happen is that Seoul will end up kowtowing to Pyongyang or even Moscow, giving up a little to save a lot, whenever North Korea or Russia tightens the vice South Korea has placed our collective cojones in, or even just threatens to do so.

    itiissaid made the same point about Kaesŏng I was going to (including about Kŭmgangsan) and how we are held back from reacting properly to things like the Yŏnpyŏng-do attack because of our fear of being closed off from an important economic project. Sure, we could have closed the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex or the Kŭmgangsan Tourism Complex anytime we wanted to, but we held on.

    Imagine how things may worsen when we have put more chips on the table — our energy supply! — and Pyongyang threatens to turn off the pipeline or Moscow decides to cut off supplies (something they have done to Europeans and which may have allowed them to inexplicably win the hosting rights for the 2014 Winter Olympics).

  4. The only advantages I can see to doing this are that (a) Moscow might just as easily slap down Pyongyang if they get out of line and turn off the pipeline, (b) Pyongyang might get addicted to earning money through commerce and that might make them less of a rogue state, especially in the post-KJI era, and (c) it is easier to gradually put in place the infrastructure needed in the eventual post-unification era than to wait and do it after North Korea is no more. (I'm an optimist, a cautious optimist.)

  5. It's hard to imagine that any rational person is seriously considering building a pipeline through the DPRK. If it is built it WILL be used as a hostage to extract concessions from the south. The only people I expect to support this kind of scheme would be muddle headed progressives, desperately seeking to revive Sunshine or fifth-columnists who actively seek to undermine the south and bolster the Kim family. I don't mean to sound like a reactionary but this is just stupidity beyond belief. There is no reason to believe that the Kim's will not use it for extortionate means. If Seoul wants Russian gas, build the necessary port facilities in Vladivostok and ship it down the east coast to Busan. Hell, you might even get Tokyo to go halfers on the investment in exchange for some gas.

  6. Douglas, I pretty much agree with what you're saying. Russia alone would be the only one that would stop Pyongyang from doing that, but who's to say that Pyongyang will always listen to them?

    Indeed, the potential for extortion is very high indeed. This only makes sense if you see reunification coming down the pipeline very soon, in which case, it would be forward planning.


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