Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 114

Arms control intersected with Asian policy late last week when Moscow announced that President Vladimir Putin will make an unprecedented trip to North Korea sometime next month. The surprise announcement, which came only a week after a Russian-U.S. summit meeting in Moscow, was also made public just days before ground-breaking talks in Pyongyang this week between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and the long-reclusive leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. Russian officials were unclear as to exactly when the Putin visit to Pyongyang would occur, but various diplomatic sources in Russia and Asia suggested that it might be on the eve of the July 21-23 summit of G-7 countries and Russia in Japan. Some of these same sources speculated that Putin’s talks Kim could be sandwiched between an expected visit by the Russian president to Beijing and Putin’s subsequent arrival in Japan.

The announcement of Putin’s visit generated immediate speculation that it is linked to continuing Russian-U.S. differences over key arms control issues. Washington has identified North Korea as one of several “rogue” states posing a potential near-term missile threat to the United States. It is on that basis that the United States is planning to proceed with the development of a limited national missile defense system. Moscow vehemently opposes the U.S. missile defense plans, not to mention Washington’s related efforts to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and has dismissed U.S. arguments that North Korea represents a genuine military threat to the United States. For those reasons there was considerable speculation over the weekend that Putin is traveling to North Korea in an effort to rein in Pyongyang’s missile program and thus to undermine the U.S. rationale for going forward with its the missile defense system.

In its public statements at least, Washington welcomed the news of Putin’s visit. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon commented on the Russian announcement during a visit to Brussels with Defense Secretary William Cohen. He urged Putin to “try to convince the North Koreans to stop work on their long-range missile program and concentrate on feeding their people.” Bacon also expressed U.S. hopes that Putin could convince the North Koreans “to stop attempting to sell their weapons all around the world.”

Russian diplomats, for their part, were careful not to put any immediate pressure of this sort on Pyongyang. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters on June 9 that Putin would not urge Kim Jong-il to curb its missile program when the two meet. “President Putin is coming on a visit to a friendly country and he does not intend to talk anybody out of anything,” Ivanov said. The issue of North Korean missiles will certainly be on Putin’s agenda, however. This was made clear on June 10, when Moscow announced that Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov–the man who has led the Russian team in recent Russian-U.S. arms control negotiations–had met in Moscow the day before with North Korean ambassador Pak Ui Chun. A Russian statement said that “discussions on maintaining strategic stability were continued” between the two men, “including the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and means of supplying them.” The statement also said that Mamedov and Pak had discussed the recent Russian-U.S. summit (Reuters, AP, UPI, Russian agencies, June 8-11).

For Moscow, however, the talks between Putin and Kim (should they actually come off) are undoubtedly being seen as something more than merely an opportunity to further Russia’s arms control agenda. They would appear also to boost long articulated–but poorly executed–efforts by Russia to raise its profile in Asia and to reestablish itself as an influential player on key security issues in the region. Russia had long sought a seat at peace talks devoted to the Korean peninsula, but had been shut out by Washington and Beijing. Indeed, several observers suggested over the weekend that the Putin visit was designed not only to boost Russian interests vis-a-vis Washington, but also to counter growing influence wielded in North Korea by Moscow’s erstwhile Asian partner China. Kim Jong-il’s first real step toward breaking North Korea’s diplomatic isolation, it might be noted, came during a visit to Beijing last month. Moreover, Putin is also said to be planning a visit to South Korea later this year. That too could reinforce Russian efforts to become a player on the Korean peninsula. Finally, a successful visit by Putin to North Korea on the very eve of the G-8 summit could increase Putin’s clout during the talks with Western leaders at the summit and aid Moscow–until now a distinctly second-class member of the exclusive club–in pursuing its broader diplomatic agenda.