Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 101

On the eve of a potentially historic Russian-U.S. summit meeting, Moscow this week played host to two of the three countries–Iraq and North Korea (the third is Iran)–Washington singled out as comprising an “axis of evil” that threatens U.S. security and international peace. On May 20 Russian officials used a visit by a delegation of Iraqi officials to restate Moscow’s intention to pursue friendly relations with Baghdad, despite indications from the Bush administration that it intends to make Iraq the next target of the U.S. antiterror war (see the Monitor, May 21).

The Russian-Iraqi talks were followed closely by the arrival in the Russian capital of North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun for several days of consultations with top Russian officials. Paek’s visit, the first by a North Korean foreign minister to Russia in some fifteen years, was treated by both countries as a significant diplomatic event, one said to reflect the great improvement in bilateral Russian-North Korean ties that has taken place since the two countries signed a treaty of friendship and good neighborly relations in February of 2000.

But while there were clearly bilateral issues on Paek’s discussion agenda in Moscow, reports seemed to make clear that his talks with Russian officials would be dominated by the standoff between Iraq and the United States and by recent efforts to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Russian and North Korean officials insisted in this context that the timing of Paek’s visit, coming on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush’s arrival in the Russian capital, was a coincidence. But Russian observers also said that the two countries were hopeful of using this coincidence to their advantage, and there were suggestions that the issue of North Korea could work its way onto the Russian-U.S. discussion agenda later this week if the Russian-North Korean talks produced promising results.

Indeed, remarks by Russian diplomatic personnel and independent observers suggested strongly that the Kremlin is hoping to use its uniquely friendly relations with Pyongyang to carve out an intermediary role for itself in the diplomatic standoff between the United States and North Korea. The implication was that Russia might not only be able to help bring the two countries to the negotiating table, but that by playing such a role Moscow might also assure itself of the increased influence on the Korean Peninsula that it has been seeking since the Soviet Union’s demise. Russian officials spoke positively in this context of a recent improvement in the diplomatic climate between Washington and Pyongyang, and expressed their full support for a visit to North Korea by U.S. Special Envoy Jack Pritchard that is expected to take place in the not-too-distant future. “At the moment the USA is sounding out contacts with a view to resuming dialogue with North Korea,” Russian diplomatic sources were quoted as saying, “and Russia intends to assist this process.”

But if Moscow appears ready to line up behind Washington by backing the Pritchard mission, it does not appear to be prepared to stop condemning the Bush administration more generally for the hardline policies that Washington has adopted toward Pyongyang. Indeed, renewed Russian criticism of the Bush administration’s posture toward North Korea was one of the more the noteworthy features of Paek’s visit this week. That criticism included a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko that “there are not and cannot be such terms as ‘rogue countries’ or ‘axis of evil’ in Russia’s foreign policy vocabulary.” Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, moreover, rejected such other fundamental aspects of Bush administration policy as its condemnations of North Korea’s missile development and nuclear programs. “There are certain fears in the West about North Korea trading missile technology,” Losyukov said. “These matters do not raise any great concern here.” Losyukov also suggested that Moscow believes North Korea to be meeting its international obligations with respect to nuclear power.

In bilateral terms, it is unclear whether Paek’s visit provided a substantive boost in relations between Russia and North Korea, or whether both sides were looking primarily at the United States, their proclamations of friendship notwithstanding. There had not been plans for Paek to sign any agreements while in Moscow, and none apparently were signed. The North Korean leader met on May 21 with his opposite number, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and a day later with Ilya Klebanov, the Russian minister for science, industry and technology, who also chairs a Russian-North Korean intergovernmental commission. Reports prior to Paek’s arrival had said that the North Korean official would also meet with President Vladimir Putin–and present to him a secret message from Korean leader Kim Jong-il–but it was unclear yesterday whether that meeting had yet taken place.

Reports in the days leading up to Paek’s arrival had also suggested that his visit might help boost military-technical cooperation between Russia and North Korea. That perception was strengthened when the Russian Foreign Ministry made public a statement on May 20 that stated the two countries did indeed intend to resume cooperation in this area. That cooperation will apparently extend not just to possible Russian arms sales to North Korea, but also to increased contacts between the defense establishments of the two countries. It was unclear whether anything concrete occurred in this area during Paek’s visit, however. Ivanov said that his own meeting with Paek had not included defense talks, and there were no explicit reports following the Paek-Klebanov meeting indicating that the subject had been broached at that time.

One area of cooperation that apparently did get a great deal of attention during Paek’s visit is a project aimed at completing a rail line that would travel from South Korea, through the North, and then connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian railroad. All three countries have good reasons to be enthusiastic about the project. For South Korea, it would provide a rail link to Europe and thus a cheaper route for transporting its manufactured goods to the West. The North, in turn, would garner significant–and desperately needed–profits in the form of transit fees. Russia would profit in the same way, while also gaining an important foothold on the Korean Peninsula. But despite these incentives and a willingness by both Russia and South Korea to aid the North in completing its section of the line, Pyongyang’s intransigence has left many wondering if the rail line will ever become a reality.

That, and other important bilateral and international issues, will likely be on the table when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pays a visit to Russia’s Far Eastern region later this year for talks with Putin. That visit would follow up Kim’s epic train journey to Moscow last summer–his first international diplomatic visit outside of China–and an earlier, groundbreaking visit by Putin to North Korea the year before. Relations between Russia and North Korea are likely nonetheless to remain heavily influenced by the state of Pyongyang’s ties with Washington. Whether Russia and the United States will be able to work out a common policy on this issue as part of a broader strategic partnership should become clearer over the next several days, as Presidents Bush and Putin hold their long-awaited summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Moscow Times, May 17; Reuters, May 20, 22; AP, DPA, May 21; AFP, May 18, 21; People’s Daily, May 21, 22; Izvestia, May 22; Itar-Tass, Interfax, May 21-22; RIA, May 20).