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The Peninsula

Will North Korea Participate in the Ultra-modern Asian Super Grid?

Published August 25, 2014
Category: North Korea

By Diane Stevenson

In a future with the Asian Super Grid, renewable energies gathered in the steppes of Mongolia would be transported through an integrated, multi-national power grid to reach energy needy cities in China, Russia, on the Korean Peninsula, and Japan. According to the most recent UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network report, South Korea, at a minimum, must seriously explore the Asian Super Grid as a significant piece in achieving its part in the international effort to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C by 2050.

Clearly, executing this project will require high levels of multilateral cooperation, technological prowess, financial capital, and years of effort to complete. However, perhaps more daunting is the  prospect of integrating the isolationist state of North Korea into this post-modern undertaking. To be sure, the power grid could entirely skip North Korea and the transmission lines could be buried underwater. But, based on the distances for the projected routes, the undoubtedly cheaper and more expedient option is to negotiate North Korea’s entrance onto the grid itself. So before this project moves out of the planning stage, the question of North Korea’s participation must be answered.

First, though, would North Korea’s neighbors want to integrate North Korea into a project of capital infrastructure like the Asian Super Grid? The benefits of including North Korea into the grid are clear. Running the grid through the Korean Peninsula on land will require less money, time, supplies, manpower, and every other input into the process than installing undersea transmission cables on the route between China and Korea. This means the project will require less initial investment and less long-term maintenance, thus improving its overall feasibility. Additionally, integrating the grid into North Korea will inherently improve the Soviet-era North Korean energy infrastructure, limiting the need for international energy assistance and most likely improving the country’s standard of living. Both of these effects will decrease Pyongyang’s reliance on international aid and thereby relieve long-term burdens on South Korea and China.

On the other hand, South Korea and Japan would be vulnerable to North Korean sabotage or energy blackmail. However, undersea transmission cables would be susceptible to North Korean antics as well. Even if North Korea were physically excluded, South Korea and Japan will not join without assurances about a unified response and alterative supply to any North Korean misbehavior regarding the grid. As a result, including North Korea does not mean the difference between an impenetrable grid and a vulnerable grid, any permutation of a complete grid will be vulnerable to North Korea, so the gains from excluding North Korea do not necessarily outweigh the gains from including it.

The second facet of this issue is if North Korea would want to participate in the grid. Traditionally, the concept of integrating North Korea so heavily into the outside world would be anachronistic to the regime’s ideology of self-reliance. However, Kim Jong-un’s goal of establishing 19 new Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and the fervor with which the North Korean regime is seeking Chinese investment implies that economic improvement, at the moment at least, is the focus of the regime, as opposed to isolationism. Participation in the grid would undoubtedly lead to infrastructure investments, and if the grid corresponded to the locations of the SEZs, North Korea would be able to address one of the challenges of encouraging investment in those areas. This indicates a possibility for promoting the grid as an economic opportunity as opposed to a form of international integration.

Significantly, many of the potential benefactors of the grid, including Russia and China, enjoy historically influential relationships with North Korea. Mongolia, who arguably stands to gain the most from investment and infrastructure building, also has a close relationship with the North Korean regime. In addition, Japan and North Korea have recently been taking steps to improve their relationship that could enhance the prospects for cooperation on the project.

Providing cheaper renewable energies to North Korea would lessen its dependence on heavy fuel aid and would undoubtedly decrease the cost of basic living expenses like fuel and electricity.  Given North Korea’s energy needs and its potential vulnerability to climate change due its dependence on subsistence farming, a regional Super Grid that facilitated the advancement of renewable energy could be in North Korea’s interest. In one striking example of North Korea’s environmental challenges, from 1995-2005, North Korea planted over 10 billion trees in a reforestation effort to protect farmland from the consequences of soil erosion. Comparatively, South Korea’s herculean reforestation effort is calculated at 11 billion trees from 1961-2008.

So there are clearly arguments useful for cajoling the North Korean regime into participating in such a project.

However, North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons could be an obstacle to its participation in the Asian Super Grid. For more than two decades proposals for a pipeline to bring Russian gas to North and South Korea have set unfulfilled because of North Korea’s provocative behavior. While the nuclear program has not been the only obstacle to the pipeline, an energy project on the scale of the Asian Super grid could raise concerns about North Korea reaping significant economic benefits if it has not given up its nuclear program. To deal with these concerns, one path forward could be to embed the project in South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s policy of Trustpolitik and present it as an inducement for greater change in North Korea.

Under Trustpolitik, President Park Geun-hye presented a vision for engaging North Korea based on a firm response to any North Korean nuclear and military threats, but that at the same time prioritizes flexible negotiation options in other areas to build trust. By prioritizing confidence-building President Park’s policy allows for more flexible and issue-specific interactions with North Korea. This flexibility, combined with Trustpolitik’s strong rebuttal on the nuclear problem, could provide a pathway for accepting North Korea into the Asian Super Grid. As President Park argues, global powers must “be prepared to offer North Korea a new beginning.” The Asian Super Grid could be a part of that new beginning.

Diane Stevenson is currently finishing her Masters of Arts in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University. The views expressed here are her own. 

Photo from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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