Lee, Moscow and Pyongyang

Yonhap reports that President Lee Myung-bak today announced several key agreements with his Russian counterparts during talks in Moscow, including the construction of a natural gas pipeline  and the linking of railroads through the North.

The agreements highlight the vast differences in handling inter-Korean issues between Lee and his two liberal predecessor, who favored a more ideological policy of engagement with Pyongyang that contrasts sharply with Lee’s more comercially oriented approach.

Lee said his summit agreements with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to build a South Korea-North Korea-Russian natural gas pipeline and a South Korea-only port near the North Korean-Russian border, as well as linking the inter-Korean railway to the trans-Siberian railway (TSR) will help South Korea drastically reduce its international logistics costs.

One problem, however, is that Lee flatly rejected the earlier inter-Korean agreements signed with Kim Jong-il, which came as a slap in the face to Pyongyang. So now we’ve got a pragmatic approach by Lee, but a leadership in Pyongyang that is ideologically opposed to him and his administration.

Still, Lee described the agreements as too profitable for the North to pass up, which struck me as ironic considering he’s consistently rejected the previous agreements signed by former presidents Roh and Kim with the North’s leadership.”The economic benefits for North Korea could be far bigger than its previous cooperation projects with South Korea in Kaesong and at Mount Geumgang.”

That last statement is striking, as it reveals Lee’s own approach to engagement after having squashed the liberal’s Sunshine Policy, going so far as to try and remove the term itself from school textbooks. After six months of dealing with one political crisis after another, and amid worsening relations with Pyongyang, Lee seems to be maneuvering to lay the groundwork for a radically new relationship.