Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 129

Moscow intensified diplomatic efforts last week aimed at winning for itself a greater role in the accelerating Korean peace process, as Russian diplomats hosted visits by official delegations from both North and South Korea. Last week’s contacts follow in the wake of the Kremlin’s announcement earlier last month that President Vladimir Putin will make a groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Sources now say that Putin will arrive in North Korea on July 19, apparently on the heels of a two-day visit to Beijing and just prior to the Russian president’s participation in the July 21-23 summit of leaders from the Group of Seven countries and Russia in Okinawa, Japan (The Korea Herald, July 3; AFP, June 28).

Putin’s visit to North Korea–he will be the first Russian leader ever to make such a trip–should strengthen his hand in Okinawa and could also move Moscow into a central position in the peace process which Kim and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung launched during their June 13-15 summit meeting. On June 25, in a letter to Kim, Putin reportedly praised the outcome of the Korean summit and indicated Moscow’s readiness to promote unification of the divided peninsula (Reuters, June 26). Although the Kremlin had distanced itself from Pyongyang following Russia’s 1990 decision to recognize South Korea, Moscow remains one of the very few to have maintained extensive diplomatic representation in North Korea. In February of this year, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov traveled to Pyongyang, where he signed a friendship treaty with the North Korean government–an accord which replaced a Cold War-era mutual defense pact between communist North Korea and the Soviet Union.

In preparation for Putin’s visit to Pyongyang later this month, a delegation of top North Korean officials apparently made an unscheduled visit to Moscow last week. Russian and Western news agencies reported that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov had met briefly at the Sheremetyevo-2 airport on June 27 with North Korean Foreign Minister Pek Nam Sun and, more important, with Kim Yong-nam. He is the head of North Korea’s parliament and is believed to be the number two man in the ruling Communist Workers Party. Few details were released about their talks (UPI, Russian agencies, June 27). Meanwhile, a Russian news agency reported on July 1 that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had also met with Kim Yong-nam–but on Friday, June 30. It was unclear whether that report, which was attributed to Russian Foreign Ministry sources, was a misstatement, or whether Kim had indeed returned to Moscow for additional consultations (Reuters, Russian agencies, July 1).

Equally interesting, the Russian government minister who oversees the country’s defense complex reportedly said on June 30 that Moscow was considering a resumption of arms sales to North Korea. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov told reporters that Russia might resume military cooperation with North Korea and might even sell arms to Pyongyang for the first time in more than a decade. According to Klebanov, the issue of Russian-North Korean military cooperation would be on the agenda during Putin’s visit to the North Korean capital. The announcement came on the same day that the Washington Times published a report which quoted U.S. intelligence sources as saying that North Korea had obtained missile parts from Russia in a secret deal (UPI, Russian agencies, June 30). If true, such a sale would make little sense from the Kremlin’s perspective, given that Moscow clearly intends to use the reconciliation of the two Koreas as an argument against U.S. plans for deployment of a national missile defense system.

One day after the reported June 27 talks between Russian and North Korean officials, South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn arrived in the Russian capital for two days of talks of his own. He and Ivanov reportedly discussed Putin’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang and, more broadly, Russian-South Korean cooperation in the effort to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. Reports prior to Lee’s arrival had suggested that he might meet with the Russian president, but that appears not to have taken place. The two sides also reportedly discussed a possible visit by Putin to South Korea but appeared to make no progress on setting a date for the visit.

What was of interest were remarks by South Korean government officials in Seoul regarding a Russian plan for economic cooperation with North Korea. According to these officials, Ivanov had proposed during his talks with Lee in Moscow a plan whereby Russia and South Korea would work together to restart North Korea’s idle thermal power plants and steel mills. Russia is reportedly especially interested in restarting operations at the East Pyongyang Thermal Power Plant and the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex–two facilities which Moscow had helped to build. Ivanov was said to have proposed that Russia provide the technology for the plants while South Korea supply capital for the project. (Ivanov reportedly indicated that North Korea had shown no interest in the project when he raised it during his February visit to Pyongyang.) In addition, Moscow is said to be interested in a project that would involve connecting Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad lines with the North and South Korean railroad networks. That project too will reportedly be on Putin’s agenda when he visits Pyongyang later this month (The Korea Herald, June 30, July 3; UPI, AP, Russian agencies, June 28).

That arms control and ballistic missile defense will also remain on the agenda in future talks between Russia and the two Koreas was suggested by talks in Moscow on June 27 between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov and South Korea’s ambassador to Russia, Jai-chun Lee. Mamedov, it is worth noting, had headed the Russian side in negotiations with the United States over the U.S. national missile defense plans and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. According to a Russian report, Mamedov and the South Korean ambassador discussed security issues, including the maintenance of strategic stability and the continuance of the arms reduction process in light of recent positive changes in the international and regional security environments. That formulation seems consistent with Moscow’s attacks on U.S. missile defense plans and Russian accusations that the U.S. threat to the ABM treaty will undermine strategic stability.