Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 156

Nearly three weeks after the July 21-23 summit of Group of Seven countries and Russia in Japan, there still remain big question marks about the topic that many believe was the highlight of the summit meeting: the “missile deal” said to have been negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during Putin’s groundbreaking July 19 visit to Pyongyang. Details and definitive information about the plan have not been made public–or, apparently, conveyed to Washington–despite a series of meetings between and among Russian, U.S. and North Korean diplomats which took place in Bangkok at the ASEAN regional forum at the end of last month. A breakthrough of sorts occurred last week, when the Washington Post reported on an exchange of letters between Moscow and Pyongyang which were said to have confirmed some key elements of the missile deal: namely, that North Korea is willing to drop its intercontinental ballistic missile program if other countries agree to launch (at no cost) several satellites per year for the North Korean governments. Nearly a week after the appearance of that report, however, the substance of the letters still has not been officially confirmed by the Russian side, nor have any new or more authoritative details of the missile deal emerged.

Indeed, it is still not entirely clear what Moscow has told Washington and other Western governments about the North Korean missile deal. Putin’s presentation at the G-7 summit in Okinawa reportedly left his counterparts baffled, a development of particular concern given that the original announcements out of Pyongyang regarding the missile deal were–to say the least–murky. Then, following talks in Bangkok on July 26 between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Talbott told reporters that the United States had received “explicit” and “unambiguous” clarifications from the Russian side that had convinced Washington the plan could end the North Korean missile threat. But Talbott revealed little of the clarifications, and also admitted that the United States still lacked any sort of confirmation from North Korea (International Herald Tribune, July 28).

That very brief ray of light, moreover, was dimmed only two days later, when U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conducted her historic meeting in Bangkok with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun. Afterward, Albright appeared to make it clear that she had received no new information whatsoever from Paek regarding the missile deal. “I was not able to glean” any information about the purported offer, Albright told reporters. She also said that when she pressed Paek, “the foreign minister declined to provide further clarification. Other ministers who met with Paek in Bangkok reportedly ran into the same stone wall. “I asked the same pointed question, but [Paek] said he was not at liberty to say,” Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said. “It would have been nice to have gotten an answer” (Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, July 29).

Last week’s news about the reported exchange of letters between Putin and Kim Jong-il have done little to illuminate the issue. The letters do reportedly suggest that the North Korean side is willing to agree that the space launches to be provided to Pyongyang under the deal would meet a key U.S. requirement: they would be conducted outside of North Korea itself. But the circumstances surrounding the Washington Post report raise questions as to the real significance of the letters. For one thing, the report is based on information provided by unnamed “well-informed sources.” The Clinton administration, moreover, said after the appearance of the report that Moscow had not notified it about the letters, while a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to offer any comment on them at all (Washington Post, August 4). Against this background, the South Korean government reacted with understandable skepticism to news of the letters. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official suggested that North Korea was unlikely to give up its ballistic missile development program. He was also quoted as suggesting that Russia may have exaggerated the original remarks made by Kim Jong-il in order to create pressure against Washington’s proposed National Missile Defense system (NMD)(Digital Chosun, August 6).

Indeed, there seems little doubt that so long as Moscow can reap the benefits associated with the “missile deal”–namely, that it boosts the Russian case against U.S. NMD–Russian leaders see no real need to provide clarifications as to what commitments Pyongyang has really made. In that respect, the missile deal has something in common with another major Russian diplomatic initiative: its effort to further stoke European opposition to NMD by proposing in its place the creation of a joint Russian-U.S.-European theater missile defense system in Europe. After talking up the proposal initially the Russian side has reportedly been slow in providing details as to exactly what it would entail. North Korea, meanwhile, which also opposes NMD, appears to be playing much the same game. Observers at the Bangkok meeting suggested that, having covered so much diplomatic ground so quickly, North Korea could now afford to keep some negotiating cards in reserve, including its real intentions regarding the missile deal. Axworthy reached a similar, if somewhat more benign conclusion. He told reporters that North Korea “is getting caught up in all the emotion [of its diplomatic emergence], and I’m not sure their policy has caught up. They are trying to buy some time and leverage on the issue” (The Guardian, July 29).