REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- For newfound economic bedfellows South Korea and Russia, the biggest question over a proposed natural gas pipeline is a dark twist on the famous line from "Field of Dreams": If you build it, will North Korea mess with it?
South Korea President Lee Myung-bak this week met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg to discuss a project to pipe Siberian natural gas to the Korean peninsula.
The project faces numerous barriers beyond the region’s frigid cold, namely that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il — whose regime would also be served by the pipeline that runs the length of the nation — could decide to use the project for political leverage, shutting down the flow of gas just to mess with Seoul.
South Korea has good reason to worry. In recent years, it has taken a harder line on sending aid to the starving masses in North Korea until that country ceases provocative acts such as two recent attacks against the South.
Kim, always the political chess player, could use the pipeline for payback of old scores with South Korea. "Look, the gas is flowing. Oops, now it’s not!"
For South Korea, there is an additional risk: Russia has been a Cold War-era ally of North Korea. And although the Kremlin halted nearly all assistance to the North, including natural gas, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, South Korea knows that such allegiances sometimes die hard.
In August, Kim met Medvedev in Siberia to firm up plans for the pipeline, which would stretch for 600 miles, half of that distance through North Korea, and pump nearly 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually. If approved, construction would begin in 2013 and gas would flow by 2017.
It seems like a win-win-win situation: North Korea receives much-needed aid by charging an estimated $100 million a year in transit fees; South Korea, one of the world’s biggest purchasers of natural gas, gets a steady flow of a much-sought resource at prices 30% lower than it currently pays.
For its part, Russia can bolster its role in northeast Asia and promote its rapidly expanding economy. Still, even Moscow's own political analysts have ridiculed the pipeline project.
"Kim has shown he is not a reliable partner," Dmitry Oreshkin recently told The Times. "They could steal gas, play with the pipeline any way they like."
South Korea knows that having a critical source of fuel run through North Korea severely limits its options of retaliation if the North repeats any past belligerence, such as an attack on a South Korean military base last November.
In St. Petersburg, Lee was quoted in South Korean reports as expressing concerns over North Korea potentially "playing games."
Russia has said it could use the possible proceeds from the pipeline as leverage to persuade North Korea to return to the long-stalled six-party talks to get the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
Lee says that, once several security concerns have been addressed, the three nations could meet to discuss the pipeline. Still, experts in Moscow and Seoul worry whether an old Cold War alliance could leave South Korea out in the cold.
— John M. Glionna
Photo: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Credit: Dmitry Astakhov / AFP / Getty Images