Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 54

Diplomatic delegations from Russia and North Korea yesterday initialed a long-negotiated interstate treaty which both sides hailed as a step toward building stronger economic and political ties. The document will replace a 1961 friendship treaty between the Soviet Union and North Korea which was scrapped some four years ago. Unlike the earlier treaty, the document initialed yesterday does not obligate Moscow to defend North Korea in the event of a military attack. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, who held several days of talks in Pyongyang prior to the signing, the new treaty is both devoid of ideology and “an absolutely normal interstate agreement… not directed against third countries.” The Russian side suggested yesterday that the new treaty could be finalized as early as May of this year, when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is tentatively scheduled to visit Pyongyang (Russian agencies, March 17).

Reports prior to and during Karasin’s stay in North Korea had said that, in addition to the treaty, the two sides would discuss a host of bilateral, regional and international issues. Two of the issues reportedly on the agenda were of direct interest to the United States and other countries in the region: the state of North Korea’s missile development program and U.S.-Japanese talks over the possible deployment of a theater missile defense (TMD). system in the region (Kyodo, March 14; Russian agencies, March 15-17).

The two issues are closely related. A missile test which North Korea conducted in August put the spotlight back on Pyongyang’s missile development program. Concerns over the threat posed by North Korean missiles have contributed to recent U.S. decisions to move forward on the development of a national ballistic missile defense system. They have also driven the Japanese-U.S. talks on a possible TMD system. Russia has accused the United States of exaggerating the missile threat posed by North Korea and opposes the proposed Japanese-U.S. TMD system.

Yesterday’s Russian-North Korean developments came a day after the government in Pyongyang agreed to allow U.S. inspections of a suspected underground nuclear weapons facility. For the time being at least, that decision eased tensions between Washington and Pyongyang and averted a direct confrontation between the two countries (Washington Post, March 17). Moscow has sought a greater role in resolving problems on the Korean peninsula, but to date has been relegated in large part to a marginal role.