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Pack your parachutes

June 27,2018
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President Moon Jae-in, far left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, far right, look on as Korea Railroad Corporation CEO Oh Young-sik and Russian Railways CEO Oleg Belozerov exchange a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation between the two national railway companies during Moon’s state visit to Russia. [AP/YONHAP]
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Nam Jeong-ho
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Kremlin offered the red-carpet treatment for President Moon Jae-in’s first state visit to Russia, which was also the first visit by a Korean president in 19 years. Moon had an interview with Russia’s leading newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and gave the first-ever speech to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, for a Korean head of state.

Moon and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting for the third time, looked comfortable together during the summit and banquet. Prior to Moon’s arrival in Moscow, a statue honoring the famous Korean female novelist Pak Kyong-ni, author of the epic novel “Land,” was erected at Saint Petersburg State University.

The visit demonstrates a willing revival of a relationship that brings reciprocal gains. Moon’s New Northern Policy, an ambitious vision of connecting the Korean Peninsula to Eurasia, and Putin’s push for a New East Policy to develop the resource-rich and underdeveloped easternmost tip of Russia have immense room for cooperation.

Moon’s endeavor is nothing new, as all South Korean governments since the two countries normalized ties in 1990 sought northward expansion. Except for President Kim Young-sam, all presidents — both liberal and conservative — had northern platforms involving vast Russia, albeit under different slogans. But none made any headway due to the North Korean risk.

But this time, the campaign has gained traction amid signs of change from Pyongyang. Since South and North Korea vowed renewed ventures during the third inter-Korean summit in April, projects that had been chucked away are being brought back. One is the transcontinental railway. The two Koreas held a working meeting to reopen and upgrade sealed and neglected railroads. Earlier this month, South Korea joined the Organization for Cooperation between Railways, an intergovernmental organization mostly comprising the old Soviet bloc.

The ultimate goal is to have a freight train leave the Busan port, head north along the eastern coastline to arrive at Vladivostok and shift to the Trans-Siberian Railway to go as far as Europe. Delivery via the railway can halve the sea trip that usually takes 45 to 50 days. A gas pipeline could be another win-win project. South Koreans will be able to use cheap natural gas from Siberia if pipelines are connected to the peninsula.

But a bumpy road lies ahead. The North Korean risk remains intact as ever. Unless North Korea completely scraps its nuclear weapons, sanctions won’t be lifted. Due to slow progress since the June 12 Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Trump administration last Friday decided to extend its unilateral sanctions on North Korea for another year.

The love-hate relationship between Washington and Moscow poses another danger. Regardless of the personal bond between Trump and Putin, ties between their governments are at their worst in the post-Cold War era after Moscow’s engagement in Syria and Ukraine. If Seoul builds a cozy relationship with Moscow, Washington could elbow out South Korea in the North Korean denuclearization process.
Then there is the question of money. South Korea must save resources for the day North Korea opens up. Whether it can afford its limited reserves on colossal infrastructure projects in both Siberia and North Korea is questionable.

Even if the projects are tempting, Seoul must seriously examine which are feasible and economical. The transcontinental rail project to deliver Europe-bound shipments via Siberia is too far-fetched.

Not many shipments in Busan are bound for Europe in the first place. To use the eastern coastline, shipments from factories around the capital must travel by road to the southern port, which then must head back north by train. Many may not use the rail option due to the complexity of the logistics and cost.

In order to not lose momentum again as in past governments, Seoul must be cool-headed and pursue what are sure and viable projects. Russia has an important role to play, not only in South Korea’s pursuit of economic gains through its Far East development but also in safeguarding regional security. Seoul can lose credibility if it makes vain promises. Dreamers made the airplane, but it was skeptics who invented parachutes. The balance is what makes things work in the world.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 26, Page 30