Putin is inching closer to his goal of turning Russia into a major transit route for trade between eastern Asia and Europe by prying open North Korea, a nuclear-capable dictatorship isolated for half a century.
Russia last month completed the first land link that North Korea’s Stalinist regime has allowed to the outside world since 2003. Running between Khasan in Russia’s southeastern corner and North Korea’s rebuilt port of Rajin, the 54-kilometer rail link is part of a project President Putin is pushing that would reunite the railway systems of the two Koreas and tie them to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
That would give Putin partial control over links to European train networks 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) away. The route is as much as three times faster than shipping via Egypt’s Suez Canal, which handles 17,000 ships a year, accounts for about 8 percent of maritime trade — and is increasingly beset by pirates and political instability in Egypt and Syria.
Shipments to and from western Europe and Rajin will be delivered in just 14 days, compared with 45 days by ship.
Getting the two Koreas to work together on the railway and a long-stalled plan to build a pipeline to supply both Koreas with Russian natural gas is fraught with financial and political hurdles, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy research group in Moscow. They stem from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and lingering animosity from the 1950-1953 Korean War.
“Russia’s position is to get North Korea involved in profitable projects to make them realize that cooperation is better than isolation,” Lukyanov said by phone from the Russian capital.
“The rail route is faster but more expensive, so it will probably become a niche product,” Tasto said by phone Oct. 7. “Cargo trains are not mass-transportation vehicles like container ships.”