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Gas pipeline to provide breakthrough in inter-Korean ties: GNP chief

Lee sought Russian pipeline project since taking office: GNP chief

The purported project for Russia to pipe Siberian natural gas through North Korean territory into South Korea will help the two Koreas thaw the months-long ice and move on to a new chapter in ties, the leader of Seoul’s ruling party said Tuesday.

The optimistic remarks by Grand National Party chairman Hong Joon-pyo came days after Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-il said he supports Moscow’s long-sought project during his summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The pipeline would stretch more than 1,700 kilometers and start transporting natural gas of up to 10 billion cubic meters per year, according to the Russian leader.

“The project President Lee Myung-bak dreamt about since he was CEO of a construction firm will now come true,” Hong told a party forum held in Incheon Tuesday. “President Lee sought to move forward this project since the very beginning of his term.”

“Once representatives of the three sides get together to start off the project, the two Koreas will be turning over a new leaf in their relations,” the rightist politician added.

During a rare meeting with Medvedev in Russia, North Korea’s Kim not only agreed to let Russia pipe the gas over its territory but also made a pledge to unconditionally return to the long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks, apparently eager to escape diplomatic and financial isolation.

Once the rare deal is finalized, Pyongyang, which has relied heavily on outside aid to feed its population of 24 million since the late 1990s, could earn up to $100 million each year, according to Seoul’s estimation.

South Korea, which has already expressed support to Moscow, is also keen to move the deal forward and import gas for cheaper price.

Despite the financial and diplomatic benefits of the plan, experts question its feasibility considering the constant change of words by the communist Pyongyang in the past. The project will do more harm than good if North Korea decides to block the gas pipeline whenever relations with Seoul becomes sour, they say.

North Korea’s denuclearization, military provocations and economic cooperation are three different issues, Hong added, emphasizing his party is not against providing financial assistance to Pyongyang in the right circumstances.

The ruling GNP, often accused of being “against reunifying with North Korea,” must ease its hard-line policy so as not to “burden the people” ahead of next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, he said.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with Pyongyang, appears more cautious to jump into optimism about the project.

“Faith between the two Koreas is critical for this process to move forward in earnest,” Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told a parliamentary meeting earlier this week.

“This project is not just between Russian and North Korea, and so serious discussions must be held between the two Koreas,” Hyun said, adding the gas pipeline is a “strategic, futuristic project” that calls for various considerations.

Although South Korea “fully recognizes the need for this gas pipeline and its significance,” it is against economic cooperation with Pyongyang until it can prove its words as honest and real, another ministry official said on the condition of anonymity.

Once North Korea’s largest economic donor, Seoul suspended aid and slashed trade with its northern rival after it became the target of Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks last year.

The communist North apparently torpedoed a South Korean warship and bombarded a border island in March and November,, respectively, killing up to 50 South Koreans including two civilians.

By Shin Hae-in (