Have you heard? All the right people summer in Siberia.
Apparently North Korea’s Kim Jong-il just had to take a summer vacation. What better place to go than Siberia? In a year filled with power shortages, reduced food supply, and recent flooding, the DPRK has had its usual collection of problems. Time to go visit the luxuriantly cool waters of Lake Baikal, thinks the Dear Leader.
Oh yes, and while splashing about in a pool filled with Baikal’s water (Kim’s security detail warned against actual lake swimming), why not have Dimi Medvedev drop in at some nearby military base like Sosnovy Bar for a little chat? While waiting for the Russian president to arrive, Kim was escorted around a hydroelectric plant. Such fun! As Kim is petrified of flying, he traveled from North Korea in his sumptuous and heavily armored train, well stocked with his favorite foods and booze. After all, it was a vacation.
The Chinese have been pushing the Kremlin for the entire summer to agree to this meeting. The North Koreans, clearly in a receptive mood, want to make some deals to provide them with food and equipment to get through the upcoming 2011-12 winter months. Beijing reportedly suggested Kim visit Siberia as a way to involve Russia in a resumption of the six-party nuclear talks.
The U.S., South Korea, and Japan have been holding fast to their position that the DPRK must take the first step by at least beginning to deconstruct its nuclear program before any resumption of the talks can begin. Of course, Kim has continued to insist on no preconditions. Supposedly the meeting between Medvedev and Kim might firm up a position among Russia, North Korea, and China. Moscow has some serious development plans to pursue with Pyongyang as a way to evolve about $11 billion in way-past-due debt that North Korea owes them.
When you strip away the diplomatic malarkey in the talks between the two leaders, you see the issue: a desire on Russia’s part to substantially increase its trade with South Korea. Medvedev, who appears to have a knack for international deal-making, reportedly explained to one of the few world leaders shorter than he is that improved rail transport down the length of North Korea to South Korea would be in everyone’s interest.
In addition to building new rail links, the Russians are interested in gas pipeline construction capable of transporting ten billion cubic meters annually of that plentiful Siberian product to energy-hungry South Korea. The impediment to the project is not North Korea. Rather, it is Seoul, which has no interest in approving its end of the project without a firm guarantee that Pyongyang at some future date would not cut off the gas whenever it judged such action opportune. Russia’s president apparently believes he can come up with an answer to that problem, but at the moment he is not letting anyone in on his magical solution.
Dmitry Medvedev shares with Vladimir Putin and earlier Russian leaders going back to the days before the communist revolution a desire to exploit their Far Eastern empire. The prospective gas pipeline with all the akin development with which it is associated becomes an extension of Russian ambition. The Chinese do not necessarily applaud the enhancement of Russian Far Eastern presence, but they know it does not really increase the traditionally perceived Russian military threat from Siberia. On the contrary, if Moscow wants to relieve a portion of the economic burden that Beijing carries in regard to the DPRK, then all to the good.
For their part, Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, always have sought a balance between North Korea’s two major benefactors. To let the Russians build a 700 km pipeline from north to south linking with South Korea is an overall plus. Pyongyang’s income from transit fees and its own access to a new energy source would be a valuable economic step forward. Kim’s problem is convincing his southern brethren that the DPRK will not hold the gas flow as a hostage sometime in the future. And that’s where Kim’s new summer friend, Dimi, comes in with his package of projects as the mediator in the six-party nuclear talks.
The North Korean negotiating technique always has been based on getting something for nothing. Moscow, with Beijing’s blessing, is now working on the linkage for a grand multi-faceted Far Eastern deal. Just the thing to make memorable the little vacation in Siberia.
And for those Kremlin watchers always on the lookout for “special” signs, the official menu for the Medvedev/Kim friendly repast was:
Kamchatka crab with avocado and lime
Blini with red caviar & sour cream
Omul (a delicate white fish — usually smoked — from Lake Baikal)
Wines from France and Italy
That plus a gas pipeline and railway. Not bad for a brief summer train trip.