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Financial Times (UK)
January 7, 2003
Moscow juggles to help solve Korean crisis
The Kremlin's multilateral approach stems partly from fear of losing its position as an Asian power
By Rafael Behr

Vladimir Putin has a hearty appetite for diplomacy and an accommodating palate. Few other world leaders can claim to have shared a Texan barbecue with US President George W. Bush and Siberian cabbage soup with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader.

This week Mr Putin will meet Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, who is visiting Moscow for the first time. They will discuss ways of bringing a peaceful resolution to the confrontation that has erupted between two of the Russian president's former dining partners.

Through adept diplomacy Mr Putin has made his country the only close US ally to maintain commercial and diplomatic ties with those states viewed in Washington as constituting an "axis of evil" - North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

South Korea has already asked Moscow to mediate in the crisis on the Korean peninsula. "Russia has long-standing and unique ties with North Korea and so provides an effective channel for dialogue with Pyongyang," said Kim Dang-Kyung, South Korea's deputy foreign minister, in Moscow at the weekend.

So far Russia's diplomatic contribution has been limited to calls for restraint and multilateral negotiations. Moscow has pointedly not said that Pyongyang should disarm as a condition of talks with the US.

Some Russian officials discreetly voice the view that the US is responsible for the current crisis by dragging its feet in fulfilling its side of a 1994 agreement under which Washington was supposed to help North Korea with civil energy infrastructure in exchange for a freeze of its weapons programme.

To veterans of the Soviet system there is something familiar about the sight of a bankrupt and brittle communist state using high-risk brinkmanship to gain international leverage. Pyongyang, they say, is bluffing.

"Moscow thinks the US made a mistake by cutting off North Korea's fuel lifeline [in halting fuel oil deliveries]," says one Russian commentator. "Kim Jong-il is simply prodding the nerves of the international community to try to force a resolution to its own problems."

North Korea's other neighbours are less patient. They want Mr Putin to intervene. Mr Kim, meanwhile, in all probability thinks Mr Putin will be representing his views in Washington, such is the special relationship between the two states.

The travel-shy North Korean "Dear Leader" has twice visited Russia, on one occasion riding his personal armoured train across Siberia. "Friendship with Russia" merits a special link on the North Korean government's official website, including video footage of a visit by Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister. Russia's economy ministry estimates bilateral trade with North Korea to be worth $100m and growing at up to 10 per cent a year.

Moscow is an obvious partner for Pyongyang. As a former client state, North Korea has strategic industries that were built to Soviet specifications and are now badly in need of upgrading: oil refineries, metal works and the nuclear facilities at the centre of the current crisis. Mr Kim also wants Russian rocket technology and conventional weapons, but is not in a position to pay for them. Pyongyang has been in default on debt since 1987.

For Russia the benefits are longer-term. Mr Putin has given his personal backing to a grand project that would extend the trans-Siberian railway to the Korean peninsula - across the North - in theory opening up a lucrative transit route for Asian exports to Europe.

Russia has set aside some $250m for the project, but that is a fraction of the overall cost. Other sources of investment will be hard to find. But Mr Putin has a strategic imperative for pushing the plan, as he made clear after his last meeting with Mr Kim in Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok last year. "If we don't link [the railway] here it will still go ahead, but through the territory of our dearly beloved neighbour China," Mr Putin said. "Russia's far east and parts of the trans-Siberian will simply not see those freights, and that's all there is to it."

Russia's far eastern regions need trade. Industries based on exploiting remote natural resources are short of investment while the local population is shrinking. This decline, especially when compared with the boom in neighbouring China, is a source of perpetual anxiety to Moscow policymakers, who fear that Russia's position as an Asian power is under threat.

Hence indulgence for the unpopular Pyongyang regime. Mr Putin is pragmatic enough to seek partnerships wherever he can find them. "Putin thinks there is no country in the world that should be Russia's natural enemy," says Clifford Gaddy of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "[He] simply realises that Russia's relations with many countries in the developing world or with quasi-rogue states are an asset if used correctly."

The Kremlin's painstaking multilateralism aims to give Russia a voice in global matters where it sees its national interest at stake, but the Kremlin fears its shrivelled military and economy have relegated it to a second-tier role.

"It is in Russia's national interest that there not be a crisis on the Korean peninsula," says Mr Gaddy. "It's not that Russia is trying to get points with the Bush administration, it's just that, if entrusted to the Bush administration alone, the situation could end up worse."

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