Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 16

The aspect of Putin’s performance in Okinawa which won the most praise from G-7 leaders was the Russian leader’s description of his July 19-20 visit to North Korea. Yet he apparently failed to provide key details of what was perceived to be the central accomplishment of his talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il: a deal by which Pyongyang would agree to give up its ballistic missile development program in exchange for access to foreign space rocket technology. The deal could be an important one because it is North Korea’s missile program which has most concerned other countries in the region and served as a key rationale for U.S. plans both to pursue deployment of a limited national missile defense (NMD) system at home and to plan with Japan a possible theater missile defense system in Asia. Both systems are vigorously opposed by Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang, a fact emphasized repeatedly during Putin’s stops in Asia.

The nebulous nature of news reports out of Pyongyang, however, generated skepticism as to what exactly Putin had accomplished on this score during his meeting with Kim. The failure of Russian officials to adequately explain the deal–both during the G-7 plus Russia meeting in Okinawa and then at an ASEAN regional forum in Bangkok that followed–raised suspicions that Moscow (not to mention Pyongyang) was interested less in halting North Korea’s missile development program than in escalating its publicity war against the U.S. NMD. Indeed, the announcement of the Russian-North Korean missile “deal” appears to have something in common with an earlier and much ballyhooed Russian proposal for a joint Russian-EU-U.S. theater missile defense system in Europe: Both were announced with great fanfare by Moscow but in neither case have Russian officials done much to clear up crucial questions that remain about the programs.