Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 143

Russia’s diplomacy in Asia took an intriguing turn this week when unnamed official sources in Moscow and a Russian customs service spokeswoman in Vladivostok were reported to have said that North Korean President Kim Jong-il is soon to be en route to Moscow. According to the Moscow sources, the reclusive North Korean leader is to arrive in the capital for two days of talks with President Vladimir Putin, probably on August 4 and 5. A Russian customs service spokeswoman in Vladivostok, meanwhile, told reporters yesterday that Kim was expected to cross into Russia by train early today en route to Vladivostok. While in the Far Eastern Russian city, Kim is expected to meet with Sergei Darkin, governor of the Primorye region, and Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin’s Far Eastern representative. According to the same source, the meeting will take place in the so-called House of Friendship, built in the 1970s on the occasion of a visit to Moscow by Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung. According to Russian reports, Pyongyang’s current ruler will, like his father in the 1970s, travel on to Moscow by train.

If Kim’s visit is in fact a reality, official Russian and North Korean sources were taking care to keep it quiet. The Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian president’s office and the North Korean embassy in Moscow reportedly said yesterday that they had no information regarding Kim’s arrival. Late last night, however, the BBC quoted Russian news agency reports saying that the Kremlin had in fact confirmed Kim’s arrival, and the Kremlin connected web site reported that Kim had already arrived in the Russian city of Khasan. It is worth remembering that Kim’s first official trip abroad, which involved a visit to Beijing in May of last year, also involved a train trip and was conducted with the greatest of secrecy. The North Korean leader is said have a fear of flying and may also be interested, out of domestic security concerns, in keeping his movements obscured.

A source in Moscow suggested on Tuesday that Kim’s talks with Putin would focus on both regional and bilateral issues. He said that U.S. missile defense plans would also be discussed, but claimed that they would not occupy a prominent place in the talks because “one cannot seriously think that North Korean missiles can pose a serious threat to the United States.” Western reports suggested that Putin and Kim would also discuss military-technical cooperation–that is, potential Russian arms sales to North Korea–and a project of interest to Moscow under which Russia’s Trans-Siberian railroad would be linked to a future inter-Korean rail line. Moscow has also indicated interest in investing several hundred million dollars into North Korea’s railroad system to help speed completion of the longer linkage with South Korea and the creation of what South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has called an “iron silk road” (Korea Herald, February 28). The project would connect the Koreas–and particularly South Korea’s powerful export industries–to Europe and would also enhance Russia’s role as a player on the Korean peninsula.

If these recent reports are true, Kim’s visit would also restore some momentum to relations between Moscow and Pyongyang, momentum that was lost this past April when the North Korean leader suddenly canceled a visit to Russia and talks with Putin. Official Russian and North Korean sources had little to say about the reasons for the cancellation, but South Korean diplomatic sources did offer some possible explanations. They suggested that Moscow’s unwillingness to provide North Korea with aid in the form of military hardware and oil–at cut-rate prices–had convinced Kim to cancel his trip. Some said that another contributing factor might have been Putin’s reported unwillingness to meet with Kim in Vladivostok (see the Monitor, April 24). The railroad trip to Moscow from the Russian Far East is nearly 6,000 miles.

That the rumors of Kim’s pending arrival in Moscow follow so soon after this past weekend’s summit of Group of Seven countries and Russia is perhaps appropriate. It was, after all, on the eve of last year’s G-7 summit meeting in Okinawa, Japan, that Putin made what looked at the time to be a groundbreaking visit to North Korea. His talks with Kim, and his announcement that North Korea might be willing to give up its missile development program, made Putin the darling of the Okinawa meeting and suggested both that Pyongyang’s opening to the world might bear some quick fruit and that Moscow might also have succeeding in raising its own profile in the region (see the Monitor, July 21, 24, 2000). Little happened with regard to the missile agreement in the months that followed, however, and Russian-North Korean relations appeared to stagnate.

But Putin was back on the offensive in March of this year when, during a visit to South Korea, he appeared to win at least partial support from Seoul for Moscow’s own opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Putin’s talks with President Kim Dae-jung, in which he embraced the South Korean leader’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with the North, also appeared to produce tentative backing by Kim for an enhanced Russian role in the inter-Korean peace process. In exchange, however, Kim appeared to expect Putin to exert Russian influence on North Korea by both advancing the earlier announced deal by which North Korea was to give up its missile development program and by convincing Kim Jong-il to be more active generally in promoting Korean reconciliation (see the Monitor, March 1).

Russia’s actual ability to wield any such influence in Pyongyang was called into question by Kim Jong-il’s April cancellation of talks with Putin, and will be tested yet again if Russian-North Korean talks do finally take place early next month in the Russian capital. The encounter has taken on special urgency for Russia over the past several weeks, given the Bush administration’s new push for deployment of a ballistic missile defense system and the fact that talks on this subject between Moscow and Washington are now set to start in earnest. Bush administration officials have continued to list the threat posed by North Korea’s missile development program as a primary justification for its own missile defense plans, and any success Putin might achieve in getting Pyongyang to give up the program would boost its own effort to rally international opposition to the Bush administration’s plans. Kim Jong-il presumably has similar calculations in mind, and that may be one reason for his decision to travel to Russia now, but whether those common interests are enough to produce an agreement remains to be seen (BBC, AP, July 25; Reuters, Itar-Tass, July 24;, July 26).