(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 9-10 with joint press conference)
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Nov. 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea agreed Wednesday to take part in a Russian-led rail and port development project in North Korea that could help reduce tensions with Pyongyang and open up a new logistics link between East Asia and Europe in line with President Park Geun-hye's "Eurasian initiative."
The memorandum of understanding was the most tangible outcome from Park's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It calls for steel giant POSCO, Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. and Korea Railroad Corp. to participate in the Rajin-Khasan development project.
The project was designed to develop North Korea's ice-free northeastern port of Rajin into a logistics hub connected to Russia's Trans Siberian Railway. In September, a 54-kilometer, double-track rail link reopened between Rajin and the nearby Russian town of Khasan after years of renovation.
Once the project to modernize the port of Rajin is completed, the rail-connected port can be used as a hub for sending cargo by rail from East Asia to as far as Europe. South Korean firms can also ship exports first to Rajin and transport them elsewhere via Russian railways.
North Korea and Russia launched the US$340 million project in 2008.
"The two sides agreed to encourage the rail and port cooperation project that companies of the two sides are pushing for so that it can move smoothly forward," said a joint statement issued after the summit.
The project fits into Park's "Eurasian initiative," which calls for binding Eurasian nations closely together by linking roads and railways to realize what she called the "Silk Road Express" running from South Korea to Europe via North Korea, Russia and China.
Wednesday's agreement was seen as a first step toward the ambitious vision.
"We, the two leaders, agreed to combine South Korea's policy of strengthening Eurasian cooperation and Russia's policy of highly regarding the Asia-Pacific region to realize our mutual potential at the maximum level and move relations between the two countries forward," Park said during a joint press conference.
"South Korea and Russia will join hands to build a new Eurasian era for the future," she said.
The Korean consortium plans to buy a stake in RasonKonTrans, the Russian-North Korean joint venture carrying out the rail and port renovation project. A final decision on the planned purchase will be made after a due diligence study in the first half of next year, officials said.
State monopoly Russian Railways has a 70 percent stake in the joint venture, with the North holding the remaining 30 percent. News reports have said that the Korean consortium plans to buy about half the Russian stake.
The purchase could be in conflict with Seoul's ban on new investments in North Korea, though it is an indirect investment via Russia. The ban is part of sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang after the North torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship near their Yellow Sea border in 2010.
The project could pave the way for similar indirect investments in the North and help reduce tensions on the divided peninsula. Inter-Korean relations, which had shown signs of a thaw following months of high tensions, chilled again after Pyongyang unilaterally canceled reunions for separated families in September.
Putin arrived in South Korea from Vietnam earlier Wednesday on a one-day visit for his second summit with Park. They first met in September on the sidelines of a Group of 20 major economies meeting in Russia's second-largest city of Saint Petersburg.
In Wednesday's summit, the two leaders also signed an MOU to enhance cooperation in shipbuilding. Officials said the deal laid the groundwork for South Korea to win orders of at least 13 liquefied natural gas tankers from Russia on the condition of technology transfer.
Also discussed was a long-discussed project to link railways of the two countries via North Korea and through to Europe. The two sides signed an MOU on rail cooperation and agreed to study the project as a long-term venture. The rail project has been talked about for many years, but little headway has been made due to security tensions.
Other projects the two sides agreed to cooperate on as long-term ventures included building a natural gas pipeline linking Russia and South Korea via the North and developing Arctic shipping routes to reduce shipping distances and time between Asia and Europe.
In total, the summit produced 17 cooperation agreement, including a visa-exemption pact calling for allowing Koreans and Russians to visit each other's nation without a visa for up to 60 days, as well as an accord to set up cultural centers in each other's nation.
Other topics for the meeting included regional and global security issues, such as the North Korean nuclear standoff. Russia is a member of the six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program and is also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
"The two sides confirmed they cannot accept Pyongyang's policy of building independent nuclear and missile capabilities ... and stressed that North Korea cannot have the status of a nuclear state," the joint statement said.
They also emphasized the North should abide by international denuclearization obligations and commitments, and agreed to work together to create the right conditions for restarting the long-stalled six-party talks on ending Pyongyang's nuclear program, the statement said.
In an apparent swipe at Japan, the statement said that the sides shared a concern that the strong cooperation potential in Northeast Asia has not been realized due to obstacles created by recent "retrograde acts and words on history."
Putin's visit to Seoul is the first by a leader from the four major powers that also includes the United States, Japan and China since Park came into office. The Russian president is also the sixth foreign leader to visit South Korea under the Park administration.
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