The main reason for Kim Jong-il's visit to Russia that began on Saturday seems to be North Korea's dire economic hardship, a senior Unification Ministry official said Sunday. The North Korean regime urgently needs money to celebrate regime founder Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday next year, when it has announced it will become a "powerful and prosperous" nation.
Kim's visit to Russia seems to have been triggered by the view that dependence on China alone is not enough to secure the cash he needs. According to Cho Bong-hyun of the IBK Economic Research Institute, "North Korea urgently needs to restore power supply."
Since the sinking of Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year, South Korea has imposed economic sanctions, leaving North Korea devoid of a major source of revenue. The North was forced to sell massive amount of anthracite coal to China last year, but this in turn exacerbated the country’s power shortage because it hampered the operation of domestic power plants.
This is why Kim made his first stop at the Bureya Hydroelectric Power Plant, the largest in Siberia, on Sunday, experts say. Kim reportedly discussed ways to export surplus electricity from the plant to North Korea.
He is expected to urge Russia to invest more in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone. Russia is already repairing a 52-km railroad connecting Rajin and Kazan in Russia and plans to build container terminal in Rajin Port.
Russia also wants to supply natural gas produced in Siberia to South Korea through a gas pipeline passing through North Korea. South Korea and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2008 for a plan to export at least 10 billion cubic m of Russian natural gas to the South, but it was put on ice over the North Korean nuclear issue.
But Gazprom vice president Alexander Ananenkov discussed the project with North Korean deputy premier Kang Sok-ju when he visited North Korea on July 4. A source familiar with North Korean affairs said, "Russia is persuading North Korea by pledging the pipeline construction project generates US$100 million of income a year for North Korea."
Russia is expected to propose a project to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Trans-Korean Railway through North Korea. "If they talk about gas pipelines, the railway project will have to be on the agenda," Cho said.