Lord of the East: Putin’s Pivot to the Pacific and Its Implications for North Korea

By | June 12, 2012 | No Comments

Russian President Vladimir Putin Speaks to Pacific Fleet Commanders in Vladivostok, 2002 | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lord of the East: Putin’s Pivot to the Pacific and Its Implications for North Korea

by Scott Bruce

The Wild, Wild East | The Russian Far East (RFE) has always had a complicated relationship with the federal government. The government in Moscow has worked to prevent the far-east from distancing itself from the federal government, no easy task given that Vladivostok is almost 6000 miles, seven times zones, away from Moscow. The RFE’s importance to the national economy dictates a close connection, however, since most of the mineral and energy resources that drive Russian economic development are located in the East. Today, integrative impulse remains a difficult one, for the the Russia Far-East constitutes about 40% of the land in Russia, but is home to less than 5% (and falling) of the countries population.

In his May 7th inauguration speech, Vladimir Putin expressed his determination to develop “our vast expanses from the Baltic to the Pacific,” an intent which echoed an earlier speech in which he had asserted that development of the far-east was “the most important geopolitical task” for Russia over the next 10-15 years. Russia’s renewed East-ward focus is not new; Putin has talked of a “Eurasian Union” of Russia and ex-Soviet, central-Asian states for some time, but these plans undoubted have a renewed urgency to them given the US government’s pivot rebalancing toward Asia.

Vladivostok will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Committee (APEC) meeting this September and, in preparation, the Russian government is pouring billions into the city to give it a facelift. Putin has also crated a new Ministry to oversee the development of the Russian Far East and pledged $20.4 billion US for far eastern development projects to start by the end of 2013.

Drills, Baby, Drills |  Russia and North Korea agreed to conduct a joint military drill on search and rescue operations later this year. This will be the first time that North Korea has participated in a military exercise with another country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here it bears recalling that Russia had remained cautiously neutral in the investigation over the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, blaming the incident on a mine and not a North Korean torpedo.

Amidst this activity, and despite a change in leadership for both governments, Russia-North Korean relations have remained cordial, in spite of Russian support for the UNSC measure criticizing North Korea’s recent satellite launch. Less than a month after the UNSC statement, North Korea congratulated Dmitri Medvedev on his appointment as Premier of Russia and expressed hope that “cooperative relations” between the two countries would “constantly develop.” North Korea appears to be signaling that there will be no slow-down in Russo-DPRK relations despite the UNSC finger wagging.

Current North Korean activity in the Russian Far-East involves 35,000 seasonal laborers, mostly working in the logging industry. North Korea also discussed renting farm-land in the under-populated Amur region to address the DPRK’s chronic food shortage. A series of cross-border visits by North Korean delegations to Amur region in the last month have added to the perception of momentum.

Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipeline |  Although much of Russia’s East-ward push will be focused on China and former Soviet states in Central Asia, North Korea is an opportunity for the new Russian government to make its presence in the Pacific known. Opportunities include:

-The RFE-DPRK-ROK gas pipeline: North Korea reaffirmed its intention to continue with the pipeline project after the death of Kim Jong-il. An MOU for this project is in place and negotiations with Gazprom as said to be ongoing. Russia would finance the pipeline and North Korea would benefit from the agreement by charging transit fees. The project would have a limited impact on economic development in North Korea as the DPRK has no capacity to absorb natural gas at this time.

-Electricity grid-interconnection: Connecting the electricity grids of the Russian Far-East, North Korea, and South Korea could support development in the DPRK and enable energy for capital trade between Russia and South Korea. This could compliment the gas pipeline project. Electricity lines could connect to Rason and/or Kaesong and support the development of these SEZs.

-Rason SEZ: There was much ado about the Chinese lease of a pier in Rajin last year, most of which neglected to note that the port was too shallow to deploy many ships, too short to support a significant maritime presence, and lacked a reliable energy supply. Russia leased the largest pier at the port and has connected Rajin to Khassan, Russia via rail. This rail connection creates the potential for Russia for increase investment in Rajin and further develop the SEZ.

-Railway links: If the inter-Korean railway project were to be revived, perhaps after the December ROK elections, there is also the possibility of connecting the inter-Korean and the trans-Siberian rail-lines. This would facilitate the shipment of commercial goods between the ROK and Russia, and support the economic development of the North. While China has invested a great deal in extending high-speed rail lines to the North Korean border, the DPRK has only ever publicly broached the notion of inter-continental rail linkages in the context of the Russian spur.

-The Greater Tumen Initiative: North Korea withdrew from the GTI in 2009, in part in response to the UNSC condemnation of its nuclear test. With the North looking to increase partnerships with both China and Russia, wanting to grow the Rason SEZ into a trading hub, and looking for foreign direct investment, a revival of the Greater Tumen Initiative might be welcome.

New Bridge Spanning over Golden Horn Bay, Vladivostok | Image via The Telegraph

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