Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 151

As the official portion of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s at-times bizarre visit to Moscow came to an end on Sunday, analysts in Russia and abroad, not to mention government officials in Moscow and Seoul, offered widely differing interpretations of what the visit had accomplished and what it meant in terms of Moscow’s and Pyongyang’s foreign policy goals. Russian press reaction was notable for the scathing criticism that some leading dailies focused on the externalities of the Kim visit, including not only the disruptions that Kim’s armored twenty-one car train caused to Russian commuters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also the more general arrogance with which the totalitarian leader and his huge entourage operated in Russia. The press complaints were an interesting indicator of just how far Russia, for all its problems and political backsliding, has come psychologically in the decade since its own communist leaders fell from power. One Russian TV commentator appeared to sum it up best when he suggested that Kim’s secretive visit had “created the feeling of a time capsule” in Red Square. Izvestia looked at the same issue more philosophically, suggesting that while Russians could sneer about Kim’s grandiose titles, “this is a mirror in which we see ourselves in a past life.” In the form of Kim Jong-il, the newspaper continued, “the specter of communism” has come to Russia (New York Times, August 5; BBC, Izvestia, August 4).

Russian newspapers were divided on the significance of the visit. Nezavisimaya Gazeta embraced what appeared to be the Russian government’s take on the meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on what was its major product–a Russian-North Korean joint statement (called the “Moscow Declaration”). The newspaper hailed the fact that the statement confirmed Pyongyang’s commitment to forego ballistic missile launches until 2003 and its related declaration that North Korea’s missile development program has a “peaceful character” and is therefore a threat only to a country that threatens North Korea’s sovereignty. More broadly, Nezavisimaya Gazeta said that, in hosting Kim, Russia had positioned itself to influence the North’s missile program and had thereby boosted Kremlin efforts aimed at rallying international opposition to U.S. missile defense plans (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 7). And though the newspaper did not make the point directly, other sources suggested that Kim’s visit–and Putin’s formal reaffirmation in the joint declaration of support for the inter-Korean reconciliation process–had also improved Moscow’s chances of playing a more influential role in the Korean peace process.

Other Russian news sources were not quite so complimentary of the Kremlin’s performance during Kim’s visit, however. Vremya Novostei, in particular, ripped the Russian leadership for having expended so much effort–and permitting so much disruption–for a visit that in fact produced such meager results. The newspaper suggested that the Moscow Declaration contained little that was not already laid out in the joint statement made public during Putin’s groundbreaking visit to North Korea last summer. The newspaper also poured cold water on official Russian claims that the Kim visit had improved Russia’s position in the strategically important Asia Pacific region or that it had proved anew Moscow’s status as one of the very few conduits by which the international community can reach out to Pyongyang. Some of this may be true, the newspaper said, but it begs the larger issue: namely, that the North Korean state is a disaster and poses potential problems in a host of different areas. The newspaper also acknowledges the Kremlin’s goal of using improved relations with Pyongyang as political leverage against the Bush administration’s missile defense plans. But it asks the more important question with respect to the Kim visit of who is actually using whom here. The newspaper suggests that it may be Kim Jong-il in the driver’s seat by pointing out that, in the wake of last year’s Putin-Kim talks, the North Korean leader embarrassed Putin by disavowing an agreement by which Pyongyang was allegedly to give up its missile development program. Indeed, Kim told a group of South Korean businessmen that he had only been “joking” when he raised the issue with Putin. That only underscored, Vremya Novostei suggested, that North Korea is an unreliable international partner (Vremya Novostei, August 6).

Kim’s visit was also noteworthy for having caused nearly as much of a commotion in the South Korean capital as it did in Moscow. Indeed, the Russian-North Korean joint statement appeared, initially at least, to have a far more disruptive, and potentially significant, effect on national political developments in South Korea than in Russia. The administration of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung did rush to welcome the results of the Moscow talks, with officials in Seoul suggesting in particular that an article contained in the joint statement–one aimed at boosting construction of a proposed Russian-North Korean-South Korean rail link–could serve as the basis for renewed reconciliation talks with Pyongyang. But another article in the joint statement–reflecting a North Korean demand that U.S. troops be withdrawn from South Korea at an early date–was the real lightening rod for political discord in Seoul. The withdrawal demand reversed assurances, which Kim Jong-il gave to Kim Dae-jung last year, that Pyongyang would not oppose the continued stationing of U.S. troops in the South even as reconciliation moved forward. Publication of this past weekend’s joint statement led opposition political leaders in South Korea to accuse Kim Dae-jung either of having lied to the South Korean people about the U.S. troop issue, or of having mismanaged the negotiations with the North more generally. The fact that Russia had expressed its “understanding” for Pyongyang’s withdrawal demand was characterized by one opposition newspaper as possible proof of an attempt by Moscow and Pyongyang “to construct a new alliance targeted at [South] Korea and the United States.” Aides to Kim Dae-jung suggested, however, that Moscow had offered informal assurances confirming that the joint statement should not be interpreted as demonstrating Russian support for Pyongyang’s withdrawal demand (Korea Times, Korea Herald, August 5-6; Digital Chosun, JoongAng Ilbo, August 5; AFP, Korea Herald, August 5).

Against this background, South Korean news sources were also divided as to whether this past weekend’s Russian-North Korean talks would ultimately prove a boon or an obstacle to the resumption of inter-Korean peace talks. The consensus, however, appeared to be that the Kim-Putin meeting and the Russian-North Korean joint declaration had created more problems than they had solved. The Korea Herald, for example, suggested that already tense relations between the United States and North Korea would likely be further complicated by “Pyongyang and Moscow’s formation of a joint front against the U.S. missile defense plan and their raising of the issue regarding U.S. forces stationed in South Korea” (Korea Herald, August 6). Commentary of this sort raises at least the possibility that Moscow may have bungled an attempt to finesse two potentially contradictory foreign policy goals: first, to enlist North Korea as an ally in Moscow’s continuing ground battle against U.S. missile defense plans; and, second, to build friendly ties with the South while presenting Russia as an honest broker in the inter-Korean peace process, one with access and influence in both North and South Korea. Putin played this second role capably during a visit to Seoul this past February (see the Monitor, March 1). The weeks ahead should make clearer whether Moscow’s new, apparently closer ties to Pyongyang will boost Russia’ s influence on the Korean Peninsula or dissipate some of the credibility that Putin earned during the February visit to Seoul.