MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev) - Bilateral prime-ministerial talks in Seoul have shown that the two Koreas really mean it when they talk about stepping up economic contacts.
The situation promises many investment projects to neighboring countries, mainly Russia and China.
The Trans-Korean railroad is the best-known of all such projects. A North Korean government delegation led by Prime Minister Kim Yong Il worked in Seoul for three days to bring a decision for restarting the North-South freight traffic in December. It will initially concern only raw material deliveries to an industrial zone near Keson in North Korea and transportation of finished products from it. The zone fulfils orders from South Korea and is the most successful North-South joint venture so far.
The revival of inter-Korean railroad traffic started in the late 20th century. A cold spell came after a gala junction of the two roads as the nuclear crisis broke out in 2002, when the United States accused North Korea of secret nuclear arms programs. Rail traffic stood still. It has a token scope even today, though the two prime ministers discussed modernizing the north stretch from the South Korean border to the Chinese.
Even ten years ago, the Trans-Korean road was regarded as a global rather than just a local project, with prospects of eventually joining Russia's Trans-Siberian railway, thereby forming a Pacific-Atlantic corridor. Alternative plans envisaged a road across China, differing on the point at which the road would cross the Russian border.
Today it is clear that if the project is to get a new lease on life, talks must start from scratch. Be all that as it may, Russia, China and others who choose to join North Korean economic modernization effort stand to gain with budding North-South contacts. There will certainly be a close investment race.
Other Seoul agreements are of a narrower scope. They concern work conditions in Keson, joint fishing in the Yellow Sea, direct shipping lines, development of North Korean shipbuilding, and partnership in agriculture and tourism.
Is Korean economic reintegration irreversible? There is no sure answer, and two problems may stand in its way: the aftermath of the nuclear crisis and an upcoming presidential election in South Korea. The prospects will become much more clear soon, in December or at the start of next year.
It takes six countries to disentangle the nuclear knot at the permanent negotiations in Beijing. It all started with Washington accusing Pyongyang of secret uranium enrichment. In turn, the offended North Korea stepped up plutonium enrichment to crown its efforts by a test explosion in the fall of 2006-a failure, on the whole. Now, Pyongyang is winding up the plutonium program, and is expected to finish it altogether and declassify all uranium program files following Beijing decisions in December. Possibly, the sensational news will come out that there is no uranium program at all and the crisis brewed out of nothing.
The South Korean presidential election, also due in December, will be a crucial event for Far Eastern politics. Its importance becomes clear when we look back at the events of five years ago, when Roh Moo-hyun's victory prevented the Iraqi drama re-enacted in the Korean Peninsula. Even during the crisis, President Roh stayed true to his "sunlight" policy toward Pyongyang to provide a positive background for Beijing talks and related diplomacy, which might have been hopeless otherwise. Everyone saw that Roh could have made it up with Pyongyang on his own without waiting for North-Korean-U.S. reconciliation. That was hinted at by Roh's visit to Pyongyang on October 4, which brought the recent prime-ministerial talks in its wake.
To all appearances, there is a consensus in South Korea on policies toward the North now. Both ruling party candidate Chung Ju Yung and his opponent Lee Myung-bak approve the current policy of rapprochement and economic integration irrespective of nuclear crisis settlement.
However, there is an independent conservative candidate, Lee Hae-chan, who has lost two elections to "sunlighters". His policy on North Korea is just the opposite-nuclear settlement first, and economic ties only later.
Is he America's Trojan horse? South Korea has plenty of other anti-North politicians. Still, it is clear that Lee's position would make Seoul's entire foreign and domestic policy, let alone nuclear crisis settlement, hostage to an argument still going on in Washington-whether to bring the Beijing talks to final success or to encourage Far Eastern tensions.
All this forces the inter-Korean negotiators to speed up the process. Possibly, both prime ministers want to face the South Korean president elect, whoever he might be, with agreements signed by them, approved by parliaments, and to be reckoned with.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.