Japan is planning on joining the Greater Tumen Initiative in the coming weeks, an informed source has told NK News, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes for a summit with the North.
The move will preempt the DPRK’s possible returning to the multilateral infrastructure project, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NK News, and enable Japan to participate in future investment projects involving the DPRK.
“All the indications are [that] after Abe is confirmed as Prime Minister, Japan will finally join the GTI,” they said.
Japan’s participation in, and funding of, these projects would occur only on the implicit understanding that a summit be held between Shinzo Abe and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, the source added.
Abe was re-elected head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last Thursday.
His re-election happens at a crucial time: Japan’s relevance on the Korean peninsula is dwindling day-by-day and the former colonial power, once an important player in six-party talks, is now left playing fifth fiddle behind Russia.
Meanwhile, Abe told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that he will use any summit to “bring about the return of all Japanese abductees” – an issue that has plagued DPRK-Japan relations for decades.
“In order to resolve the abductions issue, I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start, and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong Un,” he said.
It appears that the GTI may be Tokyo’s ticket to this much-hoped-for summit with Kim.
Officially a multi-sectoral mechanism, unofficially the Greater Tumen Initiative has always been about building infrastructure to enhance physical connectivity in North-East Asia. As an intergovernmental cooperation mechanism, it now encompasses China, Russia, Mongolia and South Korea.
The DPRK was one of the GTI’s original founding five members, but left in 2009 after hopes of receiving financial assistance failed to materialize. Japan, meanwhile, holds the position of observer at GTI meetings.
In June, this year’s meeting of the GTI Consultative Commission re-iterated the long-standing invitation to both Japan and the DPRK.
The eponymous Ulaanbaatar Declaration states: “the need to…strengthen the collaboration with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Japan on project activities…(w)e welcome Japan to consider joining the GTI”, as well as urging the DPRK “to consider re-joining the initiative at its earliest convenience.”
The Beijing-based GTI Secretariat did not provide comment in time for the publication of this article.
But while the DPRK has not publicly expressed its intention to re-join, the anonymous source told NK News that Pyongyang is likely to do so in the coming months.
The GTI encourages, according to its June 2018 Ulaanbaatar Declaration, “Member States’ regional cooperation initiatives, such as ‘Eurasian Partnership’, ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, ‘Development Road Program’, as well as ‘New Northern Policy.'”
Yet a Catch-22 stands in the way of all this: financial investments are risky without political stability, yet political stability requires political (read: financial) investments. The primary concern is that once construction begins, involved parties will be at the mercy of political actors.
The best way to ease investors’ fears is to share the costs, and hence the risks, among those controlling political actors. South Korea is ready, Russia may be willing, but a third arm seems required for the diplomatic tripod to hold.
Upon joining the GTI, Japan has access to all these initiatives. Extending the gas pipeline to Japan, investing in North Korean power grids, or simply paying for railway infrastructure construction are all options.
Depending on the specific project, costs have been predicted as running into the billions. One conservative estimate by Russian specialists puts the railway at USD$2.5-3.5 billion, whilst the pipeline racks up to USD$6 billion – and many think those numbers could double.
A sizeable bolster of yen would, therefore, be welcomed among the won and roubles.
But without a dramatic easing of UN sanctions, these plans remain pipe-dreams.
Prime Minister Abe still needs the threat of North Korea in his quest to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which prevents Japan from maintaining a conventional standing military.
Most likely, he has weighed up the various pros and cons of preparing backup plans in case sanctions are lowered, while still wanting and waiting for inter-Korean relations to return to a hostile status quo. No sanctions are violated by joining the GTI, nor by making potentially lucrative offers. Abe casts no die; he merely dangles it above the board.
WOULD PYONGYANG ACCEPT?
That depends on the proposed sum, but the mercurial nature of such long-term projects makes it unlikely. Tokyo can promise the stars in ten years and deliver scraps today, and Pyongyang knows this.
Furthermore, being a victim of political instability runs both ways, and the DPRK does not want an investor capable of sabotaging any multilateral project in the event of being spited.
On the other hand, a one-off payment, though preferred by Pyongyang, would be extremely problematic: the optics of being seen to buy a summit from your worst enemy are very bad indeed.
Japan is planning on joining the Greater Tumen Initiative in the coming weeks, an informed source has told NK News, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes for a summit with the North.The move will preempt the DPRK's possible returning to the multilateral infrastructure project, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NK News, and enable Japan to participate in future investment
Alessandro Ford is an NK News contributor based in the UK. He was the first British student to study at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and has been interviewed by the Guardian, BBC, Asahi Shimbun, and DW, among others. He still visits North Korea regularly.