VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Until recently, the leader of North Korea’s Stalinist state had never been known to meet a noncommunist, travel abroad as head of state or publicly utter more than a single slogan at a military parade.
But officials here last week said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will visit this port on the Sea of Japan Sept. 1-4, continuing an effort to reach out to the world that has taken on increasing momentum since his summit with South Korea’s president in June.
Kim’s trip to Russia will be followed Sept. 19 by a visit from Li Peng, the speaker of China’s Parliament and the second-highest official in its Communist Party, said Lada Astikas, spokeswoman for the Primorye region, which borders China and North Korea.
Both leaders are coming at the invitation of Primorye Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who traveled to China and North Korea with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month. Taken together, they show a growing recognition of common interest in this strategic region, where thin strips of North Korean and Russian territory separate the growing economy of northeastern China from Pacific seaports.
China has used both North Korean and Russian ports for exporting to Japan, South Korea and the United States. And South Korean leaders have long dreamed of establishing rail links through North Korea to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad.
At a press conference Monday, Nazdratenko stressed the importance of North Korea, which the Soviet Union heavily subsidized but has been left on its own since the Gorbachev era. North Korea owes Russia $3 billion.
“As a result of brainless politics, we literally abandoned this country, and we not only froze relations with it for 10 years, but nearly created an enemy on our borders,” the newspaper Konkurent quoted Nazdratenko as saying. “I am glad that there has been a breakthrough in relations with North Korea, and that Putin did it.”
The North Korean consulate in Nakhodka and embassy in Moscow declined to comment on the report. A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Moscow refused to confirm reports.
“I can’t either confirm or deny that,” he said. “If you make any reference to the embassy, then I won’t ever answer your questions again, and you will have problems with your accreditation.”
North Korea may be reaching out simply to get money for its tottering economy, where famine has killed up to 2 million people in recent years, said Larisa Zabrovskaya, a North Korean specialist with the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography. Kim demanded money from Putin during his visit, she said.
Nevertheless, the Korean summit has reconfigured the political landscape, she said. It is possible that the nation will develop with the help of South Korea, Zabrovskaya said.
“Within 20 or 30 years, North Korea might develop into an economic competitor,” she said. “We are running after a departing train.”
Nazdratenko established a good rapport with Kim, the media reported. The 58-year-old Kim and 52-year-old Nazdratenko were both born on Feb. 16.
In fact, Kim used the festivities to urge alcohol on the Russian governor, usually a teetotaler, he told reporters here. After Kim continued to press drink on the governor, “I had to drink for the sake of peace at the border,” Nazdratenko told reporters.
The Vladivostok newspaper Novosti added Tuesday, “Nazdratenko confessed that in Pyongyang, he drank as much booze as he had drunk in all of his life.”
The Russian government has granted permission for up to 5,000 North Koreans to work as construction and timber workers in Primorye, although the numbers have fallen below that level in recent years, federal migration officials say. The shabbily dressed North Koreans always travel in twos or threes and are required to wear lapel pins of a smiling Kim Il Sung, the former dictator and father of the current North Korean leader. Some reports say the workers are required to turn their salaries over to their government, and thus they often venture into local apartment buildings, offering to moonlight as repairmen.
Two North Korean construction workers who were buying vodka at a Vladivostok kiosk Tuesday evening said that they hadn’t heard of plans for Kim’s visit, though they regularly listen to North Korean radio broadcasts.
“We’re just workers here,” said one man, who declined to give his name. “We don’t think about anything.”
Until a visit to China in May, Kim was known to have traveled abroad only once, to China in 1983. Although regarded as a demigod in North Korea, his voice until recently had been broadcast only once, when a television clip showed him addressing a military parade with the words: “Glory to the heroic officers and men of the Korean People’s Army!”
The visit by the two Asian leaders also represents a detente on a more local level. Nazdratenko, who has often stigmatized Chinese and other foreigners, is now urging the need to cooperate with Russia’s Far Eastern neighbors.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.