North Korea’s reclusive supreme leader, Mr. Kim Jong Il, has ventured to Russia to meet President Dmitry Medvedev and discuss regional affairs. Mr. Kim repeated his readiness to return to the stalled Six-Party Talks “without preconditions” while Mr. Medvedev reportedly offered North Korea partnership in a pipeline project that would transport Russian energy resources to the Asian market.
Neither the nuclear negotiations nor the pipeline is likely to occur anytime soon. But the meeting itself is a sign of shifting regional political dynamics: Moscow seeks to re-establish itself as a player in Northeast Asia and Mr. Kim is trying to maximize his position if nuclear talks resume.
Mr. Kim last visited Russia nine years ago, when he met Mr. Vladimir Putin, then president and now prime minister. Since then, Pyongyang’s diplomacy — ever opportunistic — has focused more on South Korea, at least when there was a leader more sympathetic to North Korea in the Blue House. It also has tried to approach the United States, when it sensed the White House was eager to strike a deal, and China, which seeks to lessen strains on the North to achieve regional stability. Pyongyang has always tried to play its diplomatic partners off each other, and Moscow had little to offer North Korea in either monetary or diplomatic terms compared with Beijing or Seoul.
It is not clear what motivated the two countries to resume top-level dialogue now. While more transparent than in the Soviet days, Moscow’s decision-making is still opaque and Pyongyang remains a cipher. Nonetheless, Russia has long sought a more prominent role in Asian diplomacy and has stepped up its efforts in the last few years.
It is more likely that Mr. Kim senses that the moment has come to position his country in the six-party talks. North Korea has been pushing for a resumption of dialogue and tentative steps toward new talks — a meeting of North and South Korean diplomats and a similar get-together of North Korean and U.S. diplomats have taken place. Pyongyang wants to have as many options when negotiators sit down at the table. Mr. Kim also wants aid. North Korea has been under international sanctions since it conducted missile and nuclear tests a few years ago. The impact of those sanctions has been undermined by less than full compliance by China, but they have still managed to bite. Bad weather has also contributed to food shortages, pushing Pyongyang in recent months to ask for international assistance.
Foremost in Mr. Kim’s mind is ensuring that his son, Mr. Kim Jong Un, succeeds him as leader. To do that, he needs to make sure that the economy, hampered by energy shortages, as well as by decrepit infrastructure and equipment, gets back on track. The year 2012 is especially important as it marks the 100th birthday of Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, who, despite his death in 1994, remains president for life and the symbol of the regime’s legitimacy. Next year supposedly marks North Korea’s emergence as a “strong and prosperous nation,” raising the stakes for the regime as it aims to consolidate support for the “Young General.”
By all accounts, the meeting in Ulan Ude, about halfway between Moscow and Pyongyang, was a success. Mr. Medvedev hailed Mr. Kim as a “partner,” and announced that North Korea is ready to resume the Six-Party Talks “without preconditions.”
While that sounds good, it is Pyongyang’s way of saying it will not apologize for provocations last year — sinking a South Korean Navy ship and shelling a South Korean island (all told, 50 lives were lost) — nor promise there will not be any more. Moreover, there is no sign that North Korea is prepared to honor its September 2005 pledge to denuclearize and give up its nuclear weapons. Tokyo, Seoul and Washington have insisted that Pyongyang demonstrate that commitment before it resumes talks.
Russia and North Korea also announced that they would form a joint commission to study the prospects for a 1,100-km pipeline that would carry 10 billion cubic meters of Russian gas annually to South Korea across North Korean territory.
Russia wants new outlets to market its vast energy resources to the Asian market; it is uncomfortably reliant on China for such access now.
In theory, giving North Korea a stake in such a deal would better integrate it into the Northeast Asian regional economy and diminish its inclination to cause trouble. (Moscow is also looking for ways to be repaid an estimated $11 billion in Soviet-era debt owed by Pyongyang.) It is more likely, though, that Pyongyang sees the deal as a way to extract badly needed currency (from Russia’s purchase of construction and transit rights) as well as to develop a new lever to squeeze South Korea when relations sour.
Seoul, which will have to finance a considerable part of the deal, is unlikely to be willing to pay its neighbor to let it acquire another form of leverage over South Korea.
While both Moscow and Pyongyang have every reason to want to improve relations, the long-standing obstacles remain. North Korea needs friends, but it is not prepared to act in ways that keep them. Indeed, for all the seeming movement toward a resumption of six-party talks, it is just as likely that Pyongyang will conduct a third nuclear test — to show its determination to go its own way and confirm that it is a truly strong and prosperous nation.
Some illusions never die.
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