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Why does Russia need a new bridge in the DPRK?
Expert - on the goals of building a bridge over the Tumannaya River in Primorye
The idea of building a road bridge across the Tuman River on the border of Primorye and the DPRK has been discussed since 2015. The last time the project was actively discussed in the spring of 2019, but then the conversations subsided. Why is it so drawn to him and what could be the true reasons for the statements about the construction site? Expert Roman Tarantul argues.
Roman Tarantula Entrepreneur, member of the Russian Geographical Society
In April 2019, a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un took place in Vladivostok. One of the key decisions was the construction of an automobile bridge between Russia and North Korea.
The very next day, the governor of Primorsky Krai Oleg Kozhemyako stated that the feasibility study for the bridge across the border river Tumannaya was ready and transferred to the Ministry of Eastern Development. In the future, the project was discussed several times by representatives of the relevant departments of Russia and the DPRK.
According to the developed project, the crossings will be metal, the width of the two-lane roadway will be ten meters, the planned length is 830 meters (300 meters is the Russian part, 530 meters is North Korean). Estimating information about construction sites similar in parameters, it can be assumed that the bridge's carrying capacity will be about six million tons of cargo per year, and the approximate cost of the project is about one billion rubles, excluding the cost of access roads. According to the deputy minister of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, Alexander Krutikov, the North Korean side is ready to provide workers and construction materials, and Russia - the necessary equipment.
However, eight months after the meeting between Putin and Kim Jong-un, the activity around the cross-border bridge gradually disappeared, which was probably caused by a complex of heterogeneous reasons.
First, the United States and the UN Security Council continue to apply sanctions against the DPRK. As a result, the implementation of joint projects with North Korea today is difficult or almost impossible. The state structures of the Russian Federation are simply afraid to act contrary to applicable international law, and the hiring of commercial contractors is complicated due to their unwillingness to be on the sanction lists.
Secondly, at present there is no acute economic need for the construction of an automobile bridge. The capacity of the now operating railway "Friendship Bridge" is five million tons of cargo per year, while the volume of traffic on it is much lower. In 2017, only 2,5 million tons of cargo were transported over the bridge, in 2018 - 1,1 million tons.
If we assume that the goal of the project is to develop new types of cargo transportation between Russia and the DPRK, then the development of a ferry service between Russian and North Korean ports seems to be a less costly option. In 2017-2018, between the Vladivostok and Rajin, the ferry Man Gyong Bong had already shuttled, which stopped its work due to violation of sanctions. The vessel's carrying capacity was 1 tons, with the possibility of connecting ten refrigerated containers to the on-board electrical network. Obviously, one or more of these ships would be enough to service the existing volumes of passenger and trade turnover between countries.
Thirdly, the construction of an infrastructure project requiring serious financial investments on the border with the DPRK can be extremely negatively perceived by the population of Primorsky Krai, where the situation with road bridges is close to critical. According to the Department of Transport and Road Facilities of Primorye, at the beginning of 2019, 717 bridges were in disrepair in the region. In the period until 2024, the authorities plan to repair only 128 of them, having received appropriate support from the federal budget. The special “toxicity” of the situation for the local population is due to the fact that bridges began to collapse regularly, including with the death in October 2018. The tragedy in the village of Osinovka, when a young girl and her three-year-old daughter died during the collapse of the bridge, acquired the character of unofficial mourning for the region.
As a result, the costly construction of a cross-border bridge, not intended to solve the internal problems of Primorye, can undermine the authority of the regional authorities. Moscow does not need the speedy implementation of the project, and also does not have the opportunity to even begin construction. The railway line in the DPRK is less than half loaded, and the work itself will be negatively perceived by both the international community and the population of Primorye. In the case of lifting the sanctions from the DPRK, there is a high probability of restoration of the ferry service between Vladivostok and Rajin, which will further reduce the demand for a new bridge.
To understand the true goals pursued by the Russian authorities, it is necessary to assess the foreign policy situation around North Korea. The past two years, the steps taken by the DPRK leadership have had a key impact on the political and military-strategic situation in Northeast Asia. US President Donald Trump, who in 2017 called Kim Jong-un “fat shorty,” has already met him three times, becoming the first American leader to visit North Korea. Inter-Korean dialogue is also developing rapidly. Kim Jong-un held several meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae In, agreeing on the implementation of important infrastructure projects.
However, China was and remains the key political and economic partner of the DPRK, which accounts for 95% of North Korea’s trade. This fact makes Kim listen to the position of China. It was not without reason that the DPRK leader made his first international visit to Beijing, laying the foundation for the development of trusting and warm relations with Xi Jinping.
By the spring of 2019, political expediency was ripe for a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was extremely acute, but the economic agenda of the negotiations was not so significant. The statistics of mutual trade turnover clearly shows not the most key role of countries in life for each other. According to the results of 2018, the DPRK's share in the RF trade turnover amounted to 0,005% (144th place), the share of Russia in North Korea's foreign trade was about 1,5%. As a result, the road bridge project across the Tumannaya River, discussed with varying intensity since 2015, was designed to saturate the negotiations at the highest level with practical content, as well as to identify tangible prospects for the development of bilateral relations.
In addition, it is possible that Russian initiatives to build a bridge in the DPRK are indirect support for China’s policy on the Korean Peninsula and political reciprocity for its friendly position on the Syrian issue.
Thus, the creation of a road bridge across the Tumannaya River today is not caused by economic realities, it is difficult from a financial point of view, and also dangerous from the position of image losses for the authorities of Primorye. In addition, the implementation of joint work with North Korea will run counter to international law, the observance of which for Moscow is a basic principle of foreign policy.
At the same time, the project has a pronounced political character. Its most probable goal is to saturate relations between Russia and the DPRK with practical content, as well as to consolidate Russia as a participant in the dialogue on the problems of the Korean Peninsula. As a result, Moscow seeks to extract political dividends not so much from the implementation of the project as from the process of its discussion with Pyongyang.