Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 153

Among the important questions left unanswered in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s recently concluded visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg (Kim is currently making his way by train back to his home country) is whether the two countries moved any closer to an agreement that would satisfy Pyongyang’s reported request to purchase Russian military hardware. That arms talks were a featured item on the discussion agenda was suggested by the fact that several top North Korean military officials accompanied Kim to Moscow, and that both Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin had participated in talks that took place on August 4 (JoongAng Ilbo, August 3; Izvestia, August 5). Klebanov’s wider involvement in the recent Russian-North Korean consultations is perhaps especially significant, given that the Russian minister’s portfolio includes oversight of the country’s defense industrial sector. Moreover, a Kremlin decision this past spring to name Klebanov as head of a Russian-North Korean trade, economic and scientific-technical cooperation commission (replacing Russia’s minister of education) was interpreted by many at the time as a sign that Moscow had decided to open discussions with Pyongyang on military-technical cooperation (see the Monitor, April 24). Kim’s current long stay in Russia added to the speculation that an agreement on arms may be looming. That is in part because both en route to Moscow and in St. Petersburg Kim’s itinerary included visits to a number of defense production facilities.

There is little to suggest, however, that the Russian and North Korea delegations in fact reached any sort of final agreement this past week on what a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper said was a US$300 million purchase by Pyongyang of Russian weaponry (The Guardian, August 6). Indeed, in their public comments Russian officials remained pointedly low-key about the arms talks that did take place last week. Diplomatic sources in Russia were quoted on August 6 as saying that, while arms talks between the two sides were taking place, “drastic breakthroughs were not expected” (Interfax, August 6). And Klebanov himself, in comments to the press after Kim’s departure from Moscow, suggested that specific arms contracts had not even been discussed. That apparently does not mean, however, that an arms deal of some is not in the works. Klebanov also said that the two sides were awaiting a meeting of the joint Russian-North Korean cooperation commission, which is to take place toward the end of this year, and that decisions on concrete forms of cooperation would likely take place at that time (, August 8). Meanwhile, the independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who is believed to have good contacts with the military leadership, said: “Weapons procurement was an important part of Mr. Kim’s trip, and I think [that] significant progress has been made on that matter” (AP, August 5).

The Kremlin is probably walking a fine line on this matter. On the one hand, North Korea’s impoverished communist government, whose military budget is said to amount only to US$100 million (New York Times, August 5), is probably in no position to pay for any major purchase of Russian weaponry. And that suggests any deal made would probably have to be subsidized in some form by Moscow. That might be doable, however, if in return Pyongyang agrees to a favorable Russian role in the eventual rebuilding of North Korea’s economic infrastructure. But Moscow must take care at the same time not to alienate the government in South Korea. Seoul officials were quoted earlier this week as saying they were worried that talks of military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang might have a negative effect on the North’s relations with both the South and the United States (Korea Herald, August 6). Moreover, Moscow has also labored mightily over the past half-decade or so–albeit without much success–to increase its export of military hardware to South Korea. There is considerably more money to be made there, and it seems unlikely that Moscow would jeopardize recently improved ties with South Korea for a minor arms sale to the North.