Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 160

News reports out of Moscow this week suggest that two days of talks between Russian and U.S. government officials may have done little to clear up lingering American concerns regarding the “missile deal” said to have been discussed last month by Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during Putin’s groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang. The deal, under which the North Koreans would reportedly give up their ballistic missile program in exchange for free access to foreign satellite launches, was announced with great fanfare by Putin during July 21-23 Group of Seven summit in Japan and seen as a diplomatic victory for Moscow. At the time, however, Putin provided few details as to what sorts of commitments the North Koreans were really ready to make. Moreover, efforts by the United States to get clarification on these points were also largely rebuffed during subsequent meetings with Russian and North Korean officials, including talks which took place on the margins of last month’s ASEAN summit in Bangkok (see the Monitor, July 28).

With those failures in mind, U.S. officials apparently hoped that at this week’s talks in Moscow they might finally nail down the details of the Russian-North Korean deal. Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who is said to be one of the State Department’s key people on North Korea, led the U.S. State Department team which traveled to the Russian capital. On August 28, Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister (in charge of Asia-Pacific affairs) Aleksandr Losyukov chaired a joint meeting devoted to security on the Korean peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia. Yesterday, Sherman and her delegation met with Georgy Mamedov, who has long been Russia’s point man in discussions with the United States on key arms control issues. They include, particularly, talks on U.S. missile defense plans and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

That the Russians were not inclined to make the Putin-Kim missile agreement the centerpiece of the Moscow discussions, however, was made clear as the talks began. Russian diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that Moscow wanted instead both to discuss the entire range of security problems relevant to the two Koreas and also to voice its concerns once again about U.S.-Japanese plans to deploy a theater missile defense system in Asia. And, in a rebuff to Washington, the Russian side was quoted as saying that Moscow had no intention of serving as a proxy for the United States in conducting its diplomacy with Pyongyang. The Russian sources chose not to elaborate, but the remark suggested that Moscow was underlining its unwillingness either to lobby North Korea on U.S. demands that Pyongyang give up its ballistic missile development program or to pressure North Korean leaders on behalf of the Washington. Russian reports yesterday suggested that the Russian-North Korean missile deal had been discussed, but provided no details as to the substance of those talks. Washington and Moscow were said to have explored ways in which they could work together in furthering the Korean peace process (CNN, August 25; Reuters, August 28; UPI, AP, August 29; Russian agencies, August 28-29).

Moscow’s reticence to discuss the missile deal this week would seem to be a sharp contrast from Putin’s apparent enthusiasm both in broaching the issue during his visit to Pyongyang and in triumphantly announcing the deal during the G-7 summit meeting. That enthusiasm was undoubtedly related to the fact that the missile deal both raised Putin’s standing at the summit–no small thing given that it was his first major international event as Russian president–and served Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to undermine the rationale for any U.S. deployment of a national missile defense system (see the Monitor, July 21-24).

But the more recent Russian reticence is likely related to the fact that the North Korean leader may himself have repudiated the deal. That, at least, was the message brought home by a group of South Korean media executives who traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month for a meeting with Kim Jong-il. They said that Kim had spoken of having broached the subject of the missile deal with Putin only in a “joking” fashion. Indeed, there was a suggestion that Kim may have been surprised later when Putin announced the deal to the West. “We were talking about such a subject [the missile deal] laughingly, and I said [it] to President Putin as just a laughing subject,” Kim was quoted as saying. Later, Putin “grabbed my words” and reported the offer publicly, Kim was said to have added (Washington Post, AP, August 14). Russian officials later officially denied that Kim’s missile offer was made in anything but a serious fashion (Russian agencies, August 29). It seems likely, however, that the reports of Kim’s comments were something of an embarrassment for Putin.

That there may in fact be some tensions emerging in the recently reengineered Russian-North Korean friendship was suggested by another development this week: the announcement that North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun has postponed indefinitely a visit to Moscow which had been scheduled for the end of September. This delay compelled a high-ranking Russian diplomat to deny “media reports on some contradictions allegedly emerging in relations between Russia and North Korea, and does not mean that Russian-North Korean cooperation is declining” (Russian news agencies, August 28-29).

Paek’s stopover to Moscow, however, was presumably with the intent, at least in part, of discussing Kim Jong-il’s upcoming visit to Moscow for additional talks with Putin. That visit is currently scheduled for early next year. Although it is too early to say, any delays by Pyongyang in moving plans forward for the trip would certainly suggest that some hint of discord has crept into Moscow-Pyongyang relations. Indeed, the Kremlin could hardly have been pleased when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung said yesterday that he had been told by the North Korean leader that Pyongyang would not object to a continued U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula because American troops were needed to keep Japan, China and Russia from assuming more power in Northeast Asia (International Herald Tribune, August 30).