Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 79

Moscow’s hopes of carving out a niche for itself in Korean peace negotiations–and for raising its profile in Northeast Asia more generally–appeared to suffer a setback last week when it became known that a planned visit to Russia by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had been put off. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov confirmed the news on April 16, but provided little elaboration either on the delay or whether the much-anticipated meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin would soon be rescheduled. Russian government sources, meanwhile, were quoted as saying that they did not know the reason for the sudden and unexpected postponement. According to some earlier accounts, Kim’s visit to Russia had originally been set for April 17-18.

While Russian diplomatic sources appeared to have little to say about the shelving of the visit, diplomatic sources in South Korea tried to shed a little light on it. According to reports out of Seoul on April 20, Kim Jong-il had chosen to delay his Russia visit because of a dispute with Moscow over a Russian aid package to Pyongyang which would have included Russian weaponry. “The trip has been delayed due to disputes over an excessive demand for Russian aid,” one unnamed diplomatic source was quoted as saying. The news agency Yonhap said that Kim Jong-il had demanded from Russia new tanks, fighters and other advanced military equipment. Pyongyang reportedly also wanted deliveries of Russian oil. According to the news agency, the Kremlin had refused to consider the request. The diplomatic source said that Russia and North Korea intended to resume talks later this month on a future date for Kim’s visit (AFP, April 20; Kyodo, April 16, 20; Russian agencies, April 17).

The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, which also quoted “well-informed diplomatic sources in Seoul,” had a somewhat similar take on the reasons for the postponement. It said that Russian diplomats had tried several times since the beginning of this year to hold preparatory meetings with the North Korean side so as to settle the schedule, place and agenda for the summit. But Pyongyang was said to be unresponsive. The newspaper also pointed to possible differences between Moscow and Pyongyang over North Korean efforts to negotiate for low-cost Russian arms and oil deliveries. The newspaper also quoted sources, however, who suggested that the postponement might have been caused at least in part over a disagreement regarding the location of the summit. Putin was said to prefer a Moscow meeting while Kim was pushing for talks in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok (JoongAng Ilbo, April 22).

The view that Putin had rejected North Korea’s request for Russian arms deliveries (at below-cost prices) outright, as some reports said, was to some degree undermined, however, by developments taking place in Moscow even as news of the summit postponement was surfacing. Reports out of the Russian capital suggested that Pyongyang had in fact prevailed on Moscow to resume bilateral military-technical cooperation with North Korea, and that a key Russian government personnel appointment reflected this decision. That appointment involved the naming of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov as head of a Russian-North Korean trade, economic and scientific-technical cooperation commission. Klebanov’s appointment suggested an upgrading of the importance of the commission simply insofar as the man he replaced was Russia’s minister of education. More to the point, however, is the fact that Klebanov has oversight responsibility of Russia’s defense industrial sector, and, as one Russian daily observed, that he generally chairs intergovernmental commissions with Russia’s more important foreign partners–and, in particular, with significant purchasers of Russian military hardware.

Indeed, the same newspaper quotes “well-placed” sources as saying that specific negotiations on possible Russian-North Korean arms dealings were first initiated during Putin’s landmark visit to North Korea last July, and were resumed–with Klebanov’s participation–this past February. Moscow has kept quiet about these talks in part, the report said, out of fear that the talks might roil relations between Russia and South Korea. Seoul has also purchased some Russian weaponry, and Moscow had devoted considerable energy (albeit without much success) to expanding cooperation in this area. In fact, Klebanov chairs the Russian-South Korean intergovernmental cooperation commission for precisely this reason. Moscow reportedly is also concerned that news of Russian-North Korean arms dealings could further exacerbate tensions between Russia and the United States, which under the Bush administration has taken a harder line toward Pyongyang. There is, finally, the question of how the impoverished North Korean regime would pay for Russian weaponry–even at reduced prices. On this score, the Russian report suggests that the two sides might be seeking to include Russian arms deliveries within a broader program of economic cooperation, one which might give Moscow partial control over several North Korean industrial facilities (Vremya Novostei, April 17; Kyodo, April 19; Digital Chosun, April 20). Moscow’s own economic hard times would seem to dictate that it get some kind of financial return from any military hardware delivered to North Korea.

The postponement of Kim’s visit to Russia nevertheless appears, at least now, to be a diplomatic setback for Moscow. The Kremlin has stepped up its efforts over the past year to recover some of the influence it wielded on the Korean Peninsula during the Soviet period. That effort first bore fruit last July, when Putin’s surprise visit to North Korea–which came on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven countries and Russia on the Japanese island of Okinawa–propelled Moscow at least temporarily into the thick of the fevered diplomatic activity that accompanied North Korea’s first openings to the outside world (see the Monitor, July 21, 2000).

Since that time the Kremlin has tried to cash in diplomatically on this small amount of access it appears to have been granted by the North Korean leadership. This effort was first manifested in Putin’s announcement at the Okinawa summit that he had secured an agreement from Kim Jong-il to give up North Korea’s missile development program. The announcement was a coup for Putin, in part because it increased pressure on the Clinton administration to reconsider its support for a limited national missile defense system (see the Monitor, July 24, 2000). More recently, during a summit meeting in Seoul with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Putin tried to parlay his purported influence with the North Korean government into a tighter relationship with Seoul. The Russian leader won both a controversial (albeit partial) endorsement by Kim of Moscow’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, and a conditional commitment from the South Korean leader to bring Moscow into the Korean peace process (see the Monitor, March 1).

The unspoken quid pro quo for those diplomatic gains, however, appeared to involve Russia’s ability to deliver the goods vis-a-vis Kim Jong-il. That is, the South Koreans are expecting Putin to convince the North Korean leader both to give up his country’s missile program, as he had earlier said he would do, and to play a more active and forthcoming role in the Korean reconciliation process launched by Kim Dae-jung. But the apparently abrupt postponement by Kim of his planned talks this month with Putin suggests that Moscow’s influence in the North Korean capital may in fact be limited, and that the Russian president is still unable to deliver the goods with regard to Kim Jong-il. Serious arms talks between Moscow and Pyongyang, on the other hand, could bring the two countries closer together, but, depending on how any such future arms deal are structured, could also introduce new tensions into Moscow’s relations with Seoul and Washington.