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SEOUL — The inter-Korean railroad project across the DMZ makes a great deal of sense for the two Koreas, but it also makes sense for outside powers, above all for Russia. With space to spare on the trans-Siberian route on the return trip east, Moscow is looking south for passengers. It is offering huge sums — reportedly in the billions — to assist in the refurbishing of the North Korean system, currently in a state of total disrepair, particularly the Kyongwon line linking Seoul to Wonsan and then continuing up the east coast to Vladivostok. This is the missing link in the so-called Iron-Silk Road connecting Asia and Europe and takes advantage of Russia’s state-of-the-art container-cargo express trains.

There are not only convincing economic and commercial arguments for going ahead with this project — it would halve to just 10 days the time needed for transshipment from the Pacific to the Baltic while simultaneously undercutting by half the comparable cost by sea — but, from Russia’s viewpoint, there are sound political reasons as well.

Underscoring the Russian interest, a large delegation from the Ministry of Railroads visited Seoul last week to showcase the project, and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, due in Seoul next week on a state visit, will try to seal the deal. The immediate aim is to broker a three-way meeting between the relevant ministries of Russia and the two Koreas to which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is reportedly prepared to give his assent. And if Putin can pull it off, he will gain a leg up on the other powers with interests on the Korean Peninsula, adding another notch to his diplomatic black belt.

There is more than a touch of irony, however, in the fact that in the period immediately after Korea’s liberation from Japan following World War II and the beginning of the joint U.S.-Soviet occupation, Soviet Russia refused all U.S. attempts at zonal coordination, which were to be conducted largely through Korea’s Japanese-built railroad system. Traffic between North and South slammed to a virtual halt across the 38th parallel. Thus it is historically fitting that Russia should lead the way in the new era of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.

While on the surface the Russian position in Korea appears to be improving, Putin still has his work cut out for him. Up until now, however, he has made all the right moves, paying his respects in Pyongyang, paring down Soviet-era security guarantees that were a noose around the neck of a strained Russian economy, and arranging back-to-back state visits with the leaders of the North and South. In addition, he received Kim in Moscow in April.

Overall, the Russian leader stands a good chance of matching his constructive engagement with the European Union and East Asia for real economic and political gain.

At the same time, Putin must be careful not to overplay his hand. Russia’s track record in Korea over the last century is not one to inspire confidence. Korea has preoccupied, perplexed and repeatedly frustrated Russian and subsequently Soviet policymakers from its defeat at the hands of Japan (after Russia providing sanctuary for the last Yi dynasty king behind the walls of its legation in Seoul) to Moscow’s failed efforts to create a Korean provisional democratic government friendly to Soviet interests, which might have succeeded with a little more forbearance and a little less ideological zeal.

Finally, Moscow miscalculated American resolve in backing Kim Il Sung’s mid-century gambit to reunify the peninsula. Unfortunately, Russia still sees the presence of U.S. forces as the main barrier to better relations with Korea and would like nothing better than to see them depart irrespective of the impact on peninsular or regional stability.

Putin cannot escape the pull of history but must be careful not to condemn himself to repeating it. He should therefore avoid the misperceptions and miscalculations to which his predecessors have been prone. Among other things, he should avoid trying to pry Seoul away from Washington. Although anxieties exist over the policies of the new Bush administration with respect to North Korea, fueling them is not the way to go. While South Korea wants good relations with Russia, they cannot come at the price of the security provider of last resort.

Second, Putin should not attempt to pre-empt de facto Chinese mediation between the two Koreas or seek a place at the table of Four-Party talks. Both historically and culturally, China has the edge in influence and has always viewed the Korean Peninsula as special, in its front yard, as it were. Sharing only a tiny 16-km strip of border, it is at best only Russia’s backyard.

Rather, Russia should emphasize its economic role as a source and supplier of raw materials, as an Asia-Europe transportation corridor and, more generally, as a cooperative partner in regional economic undertakings such as the inter-Korean railroad and Tumen River projects.

As for theater missile defense, Seoul has made its views known. It doesn’t want to get involved, but it doesn’t want to get boxed in, either. Its desire to pass should be respected and the Russian leader is advised not to push the envelope, especially at a time when South Korea desperately needs to keep the Americans on the sunshine-policy path.

Overall, Russia’s role in Korea should be simply that of a good neighbor to both Koreas. It should not try to be a diplomatic mediator, nor should it try to duplicate or displace the U.S. role as security provider. To maintain his political footing, Putin should bear in mind the missteps of his predecessors, both Russian and Soviet; otherwise, he risks again being shoved aside.

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