The recent visit of Kim Jong-il to Russia and his brief meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev in Ulan-Ude continue to stir interest in political circles. This is the first trip of the North Korean leader to our country since 2002. The fact that it was prepared in strict secrecy and little is known about its results makes it even more intriguing. Summing up the talks to the reporters the Russian president said that the participant had touched upon all the current issues: bilateral, multilateral, regional security problems including the Korean nuclear problem and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Lack of concrete information establishes conditions for speculations. Most of Western and Russian liberal mass media express an opinion that the Russian leadership should not have dealt with this high-handed leader of a despotic regime and the very fact of meeting with him may negatively influence Moscow’s international reputation.
Comparing North Korea to Libya or Syria, a number of political analysts share an opinion that if “flirting” with “oppressive Arab states” was justified by profits from weapons supplies and participation in oil projects the “flirt” with Pyongyang, which definitely has nothing to produce, looks strange and illogical.
How can we explain it? Indeed, in comparison with other Asian partners of Russia the scale of the Russian North Korean cooperation is insignificant: the mutual trade volume does not exceed $100 million a year. Restricted options for exports and limited currency reserves of Pyongyang, which remains outside the global development, leave no hope that the situation can significantly improve.
North Korea is a particular and complex country which is often hard to understand. But at the same time it is Russia’s neighbor and the attitude of North Korean people towards our country has always been quite positive. This is typical both for the political elite and most of common people, who consider that there are not unsolved problems in our bilateral relations.
As for North Korea’s importance for Russia in a long term prospective, that country due to a number of reasons, including nuclear missile factor and the current stage of the dialogue between two Koreas and the US-North Korean relations, is making a serious impact on the international climate in North Eastern Asia. For Russia, which is trying to become more active politically and economically in that region, the complicated situation on Korean peninsula is the issue, which directly concerns its strategic interests and national security. In order to efficiently protect its interests and to get détente back on track on the peninsula Moscow has to maintain political dialogue and dispose of confidential channels of communication both with South Korea and North Korea. This is what Moscow is trying to achieve.
By the way, the myth on “unpredictability” and “irrationalism” of Kim Jong-il is no more than a wide spread cliché of Western propaganda, which does not want to understand the motives behind Pyongyang’s “outrageous” behavior. All recent steps of the North Korean government fit into a track of certain logic, which may look quite tough and unusual in terms of Western liberal mentality, but at the same time is explainable. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s nuclear program, however it may affect the global non-proliferation regime, has been the only guarantee that North Korea won’t repeat the fate of many states, starting from Yugoslavia and ending with Libya which were chosen by West as targets…
It appears that the summit in Ulan-Ude has become an important stage of the dialogue between Moscow and Pyongyang in order to unblock the negotiating process on the settlement of the nuclear problem in Korea, which was interrupted in late 2008. Since the beginning of the year Russia, concerned with possible negative consequences of this situation, has been taken active diplomatic efforts to find the way out of the deadlock. It was mainly thanks to Moscow that in March North Korea announced its readiness to go back to the negotiating table of six-party talks without setting any preliminary conditions. Now, following the results of the summit in August, the North Korean leader, according to the Kremlin’s press service, conformed that decision with the intention to introduce a moratorium “on production of nuclear materials and nuclear tests” already during the multilateral talks. Though, so far it is not clear whether it means an unconditional promise, which will be fulfilled automatically, or North Koreans will make concession only if other partners make concessions to them. However it may be, Moscow’s gentle and insistent diplomacy, which makes Pyongyang be flexible proves to be more efficient than the pressure of the US and South Korea.
The current Russian-North Korean summit is not an isolated event but the culmination of the process of gradual building up of volume and level of bilateral cooperation. While the North Korean leader was traveling in Russia, Pyongyang received two high ranking Russian delegations. The powerful team headed by the Regional Development Minister V.F. Basargin comprised the representatives of most of the ministries related with the national economy as well as the leading companies (GAZPROM, INTER RAO UES, Russian Railways etc) together with the Korean colleagues successfully held the fifth session of the Intergovernmental commission on economic, scientific and technical cooperation between Russia and North Korea (August 22-26, 2011). The progress was reached on many aspects including the settlement of North Korean debt to the USSR, which is probably the main thing. The meeting opened up real prospects for the removal of an obstacle which has been hampering a normal bilateral economic cooperation over the last 20 years. The meeting of the intergovernmental commission was preceded by the decision of the Russian government to grant North Korea 50,000 tons of wheat as food aid. At the same time the military delegation, headed by the Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Eastern Military District admiral Konstantin Sidenko, discussed plans on military and naval cooperation of the two countries, possibility of joint maneuvers on the search and rescue of ships in distress, as well as other exercises and agreed to exchange friendly visits of the combat ships.
The interest to North Korea, which resumed during the recent summit, was definitely triggered by the plans of the construction of the Trans-Korean gas pipeline from the Russian border to supply considerable amounts of gas (not less than 10 billion cubic meters annually) to South Korea. The idea is not new and had been discussed by the three partners at least since 2009, but it did not go further than a general discussion, first of all because of the outbreaks of confrontation in the relations between two Koreas and the aggravation of tension on the Korean peninsula.
This year, Pyongyang and Seoul have managed to cope with hesitation and almost simultaneously spoke for their participation in the promising projects. Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan, who visited Moscow in early August declared the official consent of the South Korean government. Now it seems that Dmitri Medvedev and Kim Jong-il have approved the “deal of the century” too. Of course, so far this is only a political decision and its practical implementation will require a colossal work in bilateral and trilateral format.
One thing is clear: without normal cooperation between Pyongyang and Seoul there will be no progress and whether they are ready for cooperation – only time will tell. But the parties understand that a successful implementation of the projects will bring significant profits to all the participants and contribute to stabilization of the situation on the Korean peninsula, in which everyone is interested. This is quite encouraging. For Moscow this is also a unique chance to strengthen its presence on the peninsula and to contribute to reconciliation between two Koreas.
The Russian-North Korean summit has been held and by all appearances it was quite useful. The summit showed that the Russian policy on the Korean peninsula is intensively developing and has some ideas in store and what is the main thing there are two independent directions (targeting at Pyongyang and Seoul correspondingly) in that policy which makes it sustainable and promising. On the highest level the continuity of Russia’s friendly policy towards North Korea has been confirmed. If after the first meeting with Kim Jong-il in July 2000 then president now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin saw the North Korean leader as a “completely modern person”, in 2011, President Dmitri Medvedev stressed: “I have quite positive impressions of the meeting, which was honest, informative and multi topic”.