(Seoul, Korea visit, Part Two: Opinion)
Mr. Putin is proposing a path of diplomacy in Asia, that if accepted by North Korea, could eventually lead to a welcome change of North Korea’s government. Obviously he isn’t going to propose such in public terms, but the best thing that could happen to NK is an eventual reunification with the South.
Were that to happen today it would rock the Peninsula politically and financially. Billions would have to be poured into the north in order to rebuild it into a normal part of the more modern and democratic south. But the building blocks need to be set in place by those in the region who have that ability. Mr. Putin understands that China would need to be considered in any change for North Korea and that cooperation will not be a quick fix either, though doable.
If you’ve ever traveled from China to North Korea via train over the Yalu River, you know that there is a stark difference between the runaway capitalism of China and the strict isolationism of North Korea. In the few short minutes it takes to cross the river, you’ve gone from one century to another in philosophy and lifestyle. At night it is literally the difference between light and almost total darkness.
Mr. Putin’s joint development project is centered along the border area over the Tumen River at Rajin. The Tumen is a 521 km-long river that serves as part of the boundary between China, North Korea, and Russia. The natural resources along this stretch of river include significant oil reserves, timber, coal, minerals, and farmland with fresh water supplies.
At first North Korea had agreed to be a part of the UNDP, the Greater Tumen Initiative, but they pulled out and the initiative is now a project of Russia, China, South Korea, and Mongolia. This area includes the Rajin-Sonbong region of North Korea and President Putin is hoping that Russia and China can convince Pyongyang to rejoin.
It is not an exaggeration to say that all of humanity would be for the better if Mr. Putin and the Chinese could bring a willing Pyongyang back into this project. There are some signs of thawing and Pyongyang has agreed to allow China to lease two island areas of significance to the project. But leasing land is one thing, while the involvement of North Korea would help speed the project’s progress.
Both Mr. Putin and the Chinese are hoping that the increased economic benefits to Pyongyang will help begin to open NK to the outside world. It is no accident that the NK government keeps the population isolated because should openness happen, the NK people would then have great opportunities to see for themselves other kinds of governments available and perhaps be more inclined to change. NK needs cash and is desperate for investment and this project might be one more step toward the beginning of the end.
We can hope.