September 28, 2011
On 27 September 2011, the Ministry of Unification released a statement approving a plan by Grand National Party (GNP) Chairman Hong Joon Pyo and four other members to visit the Gaeseong industrial complex. Hong will meet business leaders and officials at the complex and also engage in discussions on other bilateral issues, including the Russian proposal to build a natural-gas pipeline to the ROK transiting the DPRK.
Hong has previously announced his willingness to visit in a bid to improve relations, and has been a supporter of a more ‘flexible’ approach to the DPRK. In previous press appearances, Hong has stated his belief that current issues with the DPRK can be solved through humanitarian assistance and economic cooperation. Importantly, Hong is on record as a strong supporter of the Russian natural-gas pipeline proposal.
The Lee administration has demonstrated strong support for the natural gas pipeline proposal. However, this current enthusiasm is in contrast to the caution shown by the ROK strategic and defence community, who point to current Russian-Ukraine dispute as evidence of the risk.
On 24 September 2011, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych visited Moscow in an efforts to resolve long-running gas disputes. Ukraine is dependent on Russia for 60 percent of its energy needs and is facing a substantial reduction in transit fees as the Nordstream gas pipeline to Europe, which bypasses the Ukraine, comes online. Russia is seeking to use this influence to discourage Ukranian efforts to join the European Union (EU) and encourage its adhesion to a Russian customs union along with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
This suggests that the Lee administration’s strong support for the natural gas pipeline proposal is largely political. It is seeking to reduce the negative electoral impact that the current state of ROK-DPRK relations could have on the GNP. Importantly, it is also seeking to establish the natural-gas pipeline as the administration’s historical legacy. Securing ROK energy supplies has been a major theme throughout the administration and the commencement of work on a pipeline to supply Russian natural-gas would be seen as an ideal historical legacy.
Image: Hong Joon-Pyo