Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kim's Excellent Siberian Adventure

Though largely overshadowed by events elsewhere in the world, North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il has spent the past few days meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and touring sites in Russia's Far East and Siberia regions. The trip marks the first time in almost a decade that the Dear Leader has paid a visit to his former Cold War ally.

The reason for the trip, of course, is business and to boost ties between the two nations. Russia got the ball rolling by pledging a gift of 50,000 tons of wheat to perpetually-hungry North Korea. Russia's real goal though is to get North Korea to give permission for the construction of a natural gas pipeline across their territory so that Russia can ship its gas directly to South Korea. Traditionally, most of Russia's natural gas has gone west, though pipelines, to markets in Europe. But Russia in recent years has been trying to diversify their gas clientele; they are actively working on liquid natural gas (or LNG) export facilities on the Pacific coast and north central Russia that would allow them to ship gas via LNG tanker to any part of the globe. A pipeline to South Korea would also give Russia another lucrative outlet for their gas, with the pipeline likely ensuring a long-term agreement between the two countries. Of course, this will also subject the Russia-South Korea gas relationship to the whims of the always mercurial Mr. Kim, a situation that seems all too similar, from a Russian perspective that is, to their relationship with Ukraine, which is currently the major transit point for their European gas shipments. Friction between Russia and Ukraine over payments for that gas has resulted in several shutdowns of the pipeline network in the past few years, causing fuel shortages across Europe.

But Russia seems willing to risk it with North Korea. One reason for the Russian position could be the unfolding events in Libya. Russian companies, like the quasi-national energy conglomerate Gazprom, currently have large contracts with the Gadhafi regime to develop Libya's oil and gas reserves. With Gadhafi seemingly on his way out, there is fear in Russia that a new rebel-backed government will be pro-NATO and by extension, anti-Russian, meaning Gazprom and other Russian firms could find themselves frozen out of the new Libya (early word from the would-be rebel government though is that they will honor all existing oil and gas contracts). From the other side, there are signs that Kim Jong-il may be looking to once again play nice with the international community. During his visit, word was leaked that North Korea may be willing to declare a moratorium in their pursuit of nuclear weapons, a key precondition set by the international community for any talks with North Korea.

Its also been interesting to see the Dear Leader in the flesh in Russia. For the past couple of years, rumors have circulated about Kim Jong-il's health, with most centering on the belief that he suffered a major stroke. Getting news about Kim out of North Korea is always a tricky matter since the state-controlled media has a penchant for running old footage of Kim as current events coverage. In the few verifiable current pictures of him, Kim looked thin and pretty bad shape. Kim's Siberia trip seems to be agreeing with him though. While he does look markedly older (Kim is somewhere near 70 years old), he looks more like his pudgy, strangely-content self than he has in other recent images.

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