North Korea’s train-lover
A China hedge?
A hermit makes a rare venture out of his kingdom
Aug 27th 2011 | BEIJING AND TOKYO | from the print edition
EVEN by his own mercurial standards, the contradictory signals sent out this week by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, are unusual. One day his government was seizing the assets of a South Korean tourism venture in the North once hailed as a symbol of detente. Two days later Mr Kim, making his first visit to Russia in a decade, was discussing the possibility of a pipeline carrying natural gas between Siberia and the two Koreas.
Mr Kim’s foray into Siberia began on August 20th, and was as usual by train (he has a fear of flying). In Ulan-Ude, Mr Kim met Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, who treated the Dear Leader to some greasy salmon from Lake Baikal. Some in Russia have pushed the idea of piping Siberian gas to South Korea through the North, as well as connecting the three countries by rail. Perhaps North Korea, desperate for cash, is really interested. More likely, the interest is feigned. Russia is a useful supplier of free grain.
Importantly, the trip takes place at a time when Chinese diplomatic pressure is on North Korea to be less belligerent towards the South, and Chinese influence in the North is growing. North Koreans resent both. Mr Kim may be hedging against over reliance on China by getting closer to Russia. Either way, the political risks for Russia and South Korea of a pipeline through the North are almost too high for the plan to be credible.
Russia has also been trying to persuade the North to restart regional talks over its nuclear-weapons programme in return for more aid. North Korea offered to suspend nuclear-missile testing and production if the six-party talks—also involving China, South Korea, Japan and the United States—resume. Few Korea-watchers give the offer much credence.
Meanwhile North Korea’s announcement on August 22nd that it was seizing the assets of a South Korean tourism venture at Mt Kumgang near the border was a sign that tensions with South Korea still run high. The project earned the North millions of dollars a year, before it closed after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist in 2008.
Just south of the demilitarised zone dividing the Koreas is a modern station with a sign on the platform pointing, almost wistfully, to Pyongyang, 205km (130 miles) to the north. No train has ever reached there. The station’s eerie brightness is a reminder of too many false dawns. The mooted pipeline is not going to usher in a real one.