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[Editorial] Korea-Russia gas pipeline

The proposed construction of a gas pipeline linking Russia and South Korea via North Korea is expected to gain momentum following a summit between President Lee Myung-bak and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

At the meeting, the two leaders reaffirmed joint efforts to promote the project, saying it would benefit all three countries. The scheme calls for laying a 1,700 km-long pipeline to transport 10 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas per year to South Korea through the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly gave his backing to the project during his meeting with the Russian president in Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal in August. If the scheme goes as planned, Pyongyang is expected to collect $100 million to $200 million a year in fees for handling gas transit and leasing territory.

During the summit with Medvedev, Lee expressed concern about the risk of the pipeline being shut off by the unpredictable North. He wanted Russia’s guarantee that it would deliver gas to the South by any means available in such an eventuality.

Medvedev addressed Lee’s concern by saying that Russia would take full responsibility for managing risks stemming from the pipeline’s passage through North Korea. He reassured Lee that Russia would assume accountability if gas supply is cut off.

It was the first time that the Russian leader promised in public to take responsibility in case gas supply is disrupted. Medvedev’s assurance has eased Seoul’s concerns to some degree, giving momentum to the multi-billion dollar transnational project.

On Tuesday, an official from Gazprom unveiled a roadmap for the pipeline scheme, which was agreed between the Russian company and its South Korean counterpart, Korea Gas Corp., in September. The agreement called for drawing up a master plan between March next year and September 2013, launching construction work in 2013 and shipping gas through the pipeline from 2017.

Seoul officials downplayed the plan, saying the project’s progress depended on the negotiations on transit fees between Russia and North Korea. Yet it won’t take years for the two sides to reach a deal. Gazprom started talks with the North in September by inviting a delegation led by the reclusive regime’s oil industry minister.

As Seoul and Moscow take a step closer to realizing the pipeline project, critics have begun to raise their voices against it. They doubted the wisdom of the scheme, asserting it would simply give the North a means to threaten the South’s energy security.

Furthermore, they noted, it would provide a large amount of cash to Pyongyang annually. This not only runs counter to the government’s own principle against cash donations to the North but, more importantly, goes against the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions imposed on the North following its nuclear and missile tests.

They also cited the lack of any progress in the North’s denuclearization process and its refusal to apologize for destroying the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeongdo last year.

These criticisms are mostly valid. Yet the pipeline deal, if implemented as planned, could also significantly reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and ultimately contribute to divesting the North of its nuclear programs.

The gas pipeline can serve as an important channel for providing fuel to the energy-starved North. Furthermore it can be used to supply Russian electricity to the power-hungry state.

Regarding this point, Lee and Medvedev agreed during the summit that Seoul and Moscow could consider a project to carry surplus electricity from Russia’s Far East to South Korea via North Korea, if Russia can address South Korea’s concern about the North choking off the power lines.

Connecting the power grids of the two countries can be achieved by laying electrical cables along the gas pipeline. Seoul and Moscow can ease Pyongyang’s severe electricity shortage by allowing it to tap into these power lines. This way, they can address the North’s demand for energy aid in return for abandoning its nuclear programs.

Thus, the pipeline project needs to be seen in a positive light. It can be a vehicle to disarm the North as well as a cheaper way to ship Russian gas to South Korea. In this regard Seoul and Moscow need to promote the scheme as planned, easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and paving the way for the North’s denuclearization.
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