Central Asia

Moscow eyes role as Korean mediator
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - In pledging to strengthen ties with both North and South Korea, Russia is boosting its diplomatic profile on the highly volatile peninsula and presumably considering whether to seek a larger mediation role there.

Notably, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is to visit Seoul July 26-28 and Pyonyang on July 28-29 for talks on the Korean peninsula as well as economic issues. Within the past two years, Moscow's "new Korean policy", involving balanced ties with both Seoul and Pyongyang has brought some positive gains, Russian official news agency RIA commented on July 23.

No immediate breakthrough should be expected from Ivanov's mission to the Korean capitals, yet Moscow now is well positioned to discuss transport and energy projects on the peninsula, RIA commented. Moreover, in a departure from the decades-long tradition of bending over backward to please North Korea, now Russian officials are indicating willingness to raise some "delicate" questions in Pyongyang.

Ivanov in fact may raise the issue of alleged abductions of Japanese nationals during this month's Pyongyang visit, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said last week. Russian government officials sound optimistic about the prospect for renewed dialogue between North and South Korea.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative to the Far Eastern Federal District, said earlier this month that Pyongyang was seeking to escape its current isolation and would like to establish good relations with its neighbors. Pulikovsky made the remark at a news briefing in Russia's far eastern city of Khabarovsk, where he was welcoming a 350-member South Korean delegation of businessmen, artists, journalists and government officials promoting Russian-South Korean friendship.

The delegation then embarked upon a train, dubbed the "Korea-Russia Friendship Express", to take them on a 17-day journey marking the 12th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The delegation began its journey in the eastern port of Vladivostok and is now traveling to Moscow and St Petersburg.

Paradoxically, the South Korean mission, which is due to return to Seoul on August 1, follows in the footsteps of Pyongyang's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, who traveled 13,000 kilometers from the North Korean capital to Moscow and back along the Trans-Siberian railroad last year. In order to arrive in Moscow and come back home, Kim undertook an unprecedented trip in a 21-car, Japanese-built armored express train.

Subsequently, Pulikovsky has become a sort of self-made expert on reclusive North Korean leader, since he accompanied Kim Jong-il on the 24-day train ride and wrote a book about the journey. The Soviet Union was a close ally of Pyongyang during the 1950-53 war, but relations experienced a downturn following the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia, Pyongyang's neighbor thanks to a narrow land border near Vladivostok, has sharply downgraded its ties with North Korea.

There has been a corresponding increase in Russian trade links with South Korea, which is still technically at war with North Korea. However, in 2000 Moscow and Pyongyang signed a new bilateral treaty to replace an outmoded Soviet-era accord in place since 1961. In the meantime, between 1992 and 2000, bilateral trade dropped from $600 million to $105 million a year. Moreover, the bulk, some 90 percent, of North Korean exports to Russia consists of cheap labor force. North Korean workers are typically engaged at forestry projects.

Russia has promised to help rebuild North Korean enterprises launched during the Soviet era, including power projects, although Moscow's aid is conditional on regular payments on Pyongyang's Soviet-era debt, estimated at between $2.9 billion and $4.4 billion. On the other hand, Moscow reportedly offered Seoul to repay its $1.7 billion debt to South Korea by "joint" investments in North Korean projects, including modernization of North Korea's energy system and construction of Korea's North-South railway - to be connected with Russia's Trans-Siberian railway.

In recent years Pyongyang has indicated its willingness to get involved in high-profile projects. In 1997, North Korea reportedly agreed to carry a 5,000-kilometer pipeline exporting Russian natural gas from Siberia to South Korea and thence to Japan.

Pyongyang's agreement was vital to the project. Moscow and Pyongyang have also mulled the Tumangan project, which envisions the development of the Tuman River basin - where Primorie (the southernmost region of modern Russia), China and North Korea meet - into a major trading area. However, both gas pipeline and Tumangan projects remain on the drawing boards. Moscow's newfound initiative has not gone without protest at home.

The plan to rebuild the Trans-Korean railroad and link it to the Trans-Siberian poses a "huge political risk" and would require substantial investment, says Railways Minister Guennady Fadeyev. The project is estimated to cost about $250 million. Completing the link is expected to significantly increase cargo transit via the Trans-Siberian railroad and reduce the time needed for the shipment of goods from South Korea to Europe.

Therefore, Russia presumably aims at being a part of economic cooperation on the Korean peninsula that would lead to eventual reunification. However, a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic obstacles in the reclusive communist state and its undeveloped legal and banking systems, have been hindered economic cooperation and Russia-backed projects. Yet in one particular area North Korea does seek cooperation with Russia.

When North Korean Defense Minister, Vice Marshal Kim Il-chol, visited Moscow in April 2001, he clinched a deal on bilateral cooperation in the defense industry and military equipment. Nearly all weapons used by North Korean military are obsolete Soviet-made models or domestically manufactured arms produced under Soviet licenses.

Currently, Russian arms sales to North Korea are estimated at some $10 million a year, presumably a minimum level to supply the North Korean army with most needed spare parts. North Korea reportedly sought some $100 million of Russian arms supplies per annum yet Moscow has been reluctant to extend new loans to cash-strapped Pyongyang.

The North Korean armed forces have 50 missiles, 2,300 tanks, 10,000 pieces of artillery, some 50 naval vessels (including three frigates, six mine sweepers, and 40 missile boats) and 23 Romeo and Whiskey class diesel submarines. North Korean armored units mainly use obsolete Soviet and Chinese makes, including the legendary T-34 main Soviet battle tank of World War Two and a few newer T-62 Soviet and "Type-59" Chinese tanks. North Korean artillery mainly consists of obsolete makes, except relatively modern "Gvozdika" and "Acacia" self-propelled howitzers.

Pyongyang airforce still uses obsolete MiG-17, MiG-19, MiG-23, but also newer Su-25 and 30 modern MiG-29. Missile forces include 20 Luna-M tactical complexes and 30 Scud missiles, known as Rodong in North Korea.

Although North Korean missiles, as well as most other pieces of military hardware supplied during the Soviet era, have long grown obsolete, Washington has been branding Pyongyang a missile exporter and developer of weapons of mass destruction. Finally US President George W Bush included North Korea in an axis of evil. So far, the Kremlin has been reluctant to subscribe to Washington's criticism of North Korea. Although Putin became the first Kremlin leader ever to visit Pyongyang in July 2000, he faced an embarrassment.

Kim Jong-il reportedly offered to abandon his country's missile program if the United States agreed to launch North Korean satellites. Just as Moscow started to herald this statement as a diplomatic victory, Kim subsequently dismissed the offer as a joke. Hence Russia's attempt to mediate between Washington and
Pyongyang failed. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Russia's moves to boost its diplomatic weight on the Korean Peninsula are likely to produce any meaningful results - notably due to Moscow's limited ability to influence global issues.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Jul 25, 2002


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