Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 142

President Vladimir Putin wound up a groundbreaking, two-day visit to Pyongyang yesterday hailed by many Russian media as a resounding success for both Putin and Russian diplomacy. But the key accomplishment of the visit–a reported statement of willingness by North Korea to abandon its missile development–raised more questions than it answered and could easily prove over the longer run to be nearly meaningless. The talks between Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il nevertheless served both Moscow and Pyongyang in the present by increasing the pressure on Washington to give up its planned deployment of a limited national missile defense (NMD) system. Indeed, Putin can now travel to this weekend’s summit of Group of Seven (G-7) countries and Russia in Japan with the added prestige of having just visited both Beijing and Pyongyang, and of having won endorsements in both of those countries for Moscow’s opposition to U.S. NMD plans. The centrality of this issue to Putin’s Far Eastern tour was underscored again yesterday by Beijing’s praise for the results of the Putin-Kim talks and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s assertion that the talks had helped “to maintain and safeguard the global strategic balance and stability” (AFP, July 20).

Putin, who was making the first trip to North Korea by any Soviet or Russian leader, was given the red carpet treatment in Pyongyang on July 19 following his arrival from summit talks in Beijing. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans reportedly turned out to greet him. Even the normally reclusive Kim traveled to the airport to extend a personal welcome.

Later that day, the two men were said to have conducted two hours of talks. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, it was at the conclusion of those talks that Putin spoke of Kim’s readiness to scrap North Korea’s controversial missile development program. “North Korea is even prepared to use exclusively the missile technology other countries if it is offered rocket booster for peaceful space research,” Putin was quoted by Interfax as saying. He also apparently made it clear that Kim’s offer was conditional on North Korea being given access to the rocket technology of other countries for peaceful space research. And he suggested that other countries–and presumably the United States in particular–would have to pick up any costs associated the proposal. “Why should only Russia have to pay?” Putin was quoted as saying. “One should expect other countries, if they assert that [North Korea] poses a threat to them, would support this project” (Reuters, AP, BBC, CNN, July 19). The United States has cited the missile threat posed by North Korea to justify its plans for NMD. Both Moscow and Beijing deny that Pyongyang represents any such threat and they also argue that the recent relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula only further weakens the U.S. case for NMD.

In a follow-up to the July 19 talks, Putin and Kim yesterday presented an eleven-point joint declaration which included, first, calls for improved bilateral relations and increased cooperation and, second, joint pronouncements on several key international issues. No surprise that one of those two issues involved a North Korean statement of support for Russian efforts to maintain and strengthen the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. The declaration also included a reference to another of Moscow’s key foreign policy goals. It said that “the DPRK and Russia oppose interference in other states’ internal affairs perpetrated under the pretext of humanitarian intervention and support each other’s efforts to defend its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” That is merely a restatement of repeated Russian assertions–voiced with particular vehemence as a result of last year’s NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia–that principles of national sovereignty must take precedence over those related to so-called “humanitarian interventions” (Reuters, July 20).

With regard to bilateral relations between Russia and North Korea, Putin’s visit appears to have represented an effort to move Moscow closer to Pyongyang after nearly a decade in which the Kremlin gave precedence to promoting relations with South Korea. That effort was manifested in part by the lavish praise that Putin heaped upon Kim following the talks between the two leaders. But one South Korean daily suggested that government authorities in Seoul would look especially hard at another of the points enunciated in the Russian-North Korean joint declaration–one that states “the two countries will contact each other without delay when the danger of invasion is imminent, or when peace and security of the two are threatened.” The Cold War-era friendship treaty which bound the Soviet Union and North Korea (signed in 1961) included a mutual defense agreement. But Moscow made certain that a new friendship and cooperation accord between North Korea and the Russian Federation–finally signed in February of this year–contained no such commitment. The South Korean daily suggests that authorities in Seoul “should not take…lightly” this puzzling new statement in yesterday’s joint declaration (The Digital Chosun, July 20).

It is the alleged offer by Kim to abandon North Korea’s missile development program, however, which will draw the most attention and which has raised the most questions. A South Korean publication, noting discrepancies in the reporting on Kim’s statements on this subject, suggests that it is not even clear what the North Korean leader had actually said to Putin (Korea Herald, July 21). That reporting of the event might be off the mark was also suggested by two perhaps subtle facts. One, that Kim’s alleged offer was apparently not mentioned during yesterday’s presentation of the joint declaration. Two, that the offer was not incorporated into the declaration itself. Reference is made there only to Pyongyang’s assertion that its missile development program is operated solely for peaceful purposes and does not constitute a threat to any nation’s security (International agencies, July 20).

South Korean officials and various security experts also raised questions this week about the credibility of Kim’s alleged offer to give up or freeze North Korea’s missile program in exchange for foreign space rocket technology. They note that the impoverished country has poured vast financial resources into developing its weapons program and suggest that Pyongyang would not give up the program without substantial security guarantees and a huge payoff in return. Indeed, talks earlier this month between U.S. and North Korean negotiators–aimed at halting exports of North Korean military technology–failed when the North Koreans demanded payments of US$1 billion per year for three years as recompense. Indeed, South Korean sources note that North Korea’s missile program remains the most valuable bargaining chip in Pyongyang’s talks with the U.S., and that Pyongyang will not give it up easily. In any case, they also suggest that a more accurate reporting of Kim’s statements to Putin will not be available until the Russian president debriefs South Korean and other officials during this weekend’s summit in Okinawa (AFP, July 20; Korea Herald, July 21).