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#18 - JRL 7009
Asia Time
January 8, 2003
North Korea overshadows Russia-Japan talks
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - As the tension surrounding North Korea's revived nuclear program has heightened, Moscow has been keen to serve as a mediator between Pyongyang and the rest of the world. However, it remains to be seen whether shared concerns over Pyongyang's dangerous rhetoric will fill the gaps in ties between Russia and Japan, notably their territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands and the still unsigned post-World War II peace treaty.

With Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visiting Russia for the first time from January 9 to 12, the on-going crisis surrounding North Korea is expected to top the agenda of his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The expectation on the Japanese side is that Russia will actively move to persuade North Korea to cooperate with the international community. However, it is understood in diplomatic circles that Moscow and Tokyo may face difficulties in addressing North Korean issues of mutual concern unless they first make some headway in tackling their own bilateral problems.

As a result, the Russians and Japanese have reportedly tried to work out a road map towards bilateral reconciliation. On January 10, Putin and Koizumi are expected to sign a Moscow declaration with a blueprint likely to be issued in the form of an "action plan" to outline a timetable for settling their territorial dispute. The preamble of the declaration is expected to reflect the Russian position and mention economic and international issues ahead of the territorial dispute, while the main text would reflect the Japanese position that the territorial issue should be solved first.

In recent days, though, the Kremlin has been keen to have more of a say on North Korea. On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was due to visit Russia to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue. He is also due to visit China and South Korea. France, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has expressed concerns over North Korea's nuclear program and has pledged close cooperation with the international community to resolve the crisis.

South Korea has already asked Moscow to mediate in the crisis on the Korean peninsula. The Russians pledged that "they would try their best to use their channel to North Korea", South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hang-kyung said on January 5 after more than two hours of talks with senior Russian officials. Russia's good relations with North Korea help create a "channel for dialogue", Kim said in Moscow, according to according to RIA, the official Russian mouthpiece. The Russians promised to talk to Pyongyang and discuss a peaceful end to the nuclear crisis, said Kim, who held talks with Russian deputy foreign ministers and Asia experts, Alexander Losyukov and Georgy Mamedov.

Solutions would have to be worked out "so that North Korea does not feel insecure and give up its nuclear program", the Interfax news agency quoted Losyukov as saying. Losyukov declined to reveal details, but Interfax quoted diplomatic sources as saying that an idea of "multilateral security guarantees" to Pyongyang was discussed. However, Losyukov seemingly ruled out rumors that Russia planned to send its own envoy to Pyongyang.

Hence the Kremlin's contribution has so far been limited to calls for dialogue and restraint. Moreover, Moscow allowed itself a muted criticism of US policy in Northeast Asia. The "inconceivable" Korean policy of President George W Bush entailed an Iraq-like crisis, RIA commented on January 4. Nobody needs "Pyongyang surprises" or a nuclear race on the Korean Peninsula, but Washington should re-think its "inadeqaute" Korean policy, the agency said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that Russia was seeking clarification from Pyongyang about its nuclear program, and indicated that the United States had not provided Russia with a full rundown of what it had learned about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. As Russia has economic interests in North Korea, Moscow may be more likely to act as Pyongyang's advocate in Washington, rather than vice versa.

Moscow's close relationship with Pyongyang is understood to be one of its few remaining sources of influence in East Asia and it would be reluctant to end that. Russia has been trying to advise North Korea on how to reform its economy and on how to deal with Washington. In return, Russia hopes to benefit when North Korea's economy opens up.

On the other hand, some Russian officials and experts argue that perceived US arrogance is partly responsible for the current crisis. The US policy of providing Pyongyang with fuel and food aid in exchange for stopping its nuclear program has so far failed to sustain stability in Northeast Asia, argues Alexei Voskressenski, head of the China and Northeast Asia department at the Moscow-based Institute on International Relations. Therefore, now Russia and China may effectively join forces in dealing with North Korea, as Beijing and Moscow retain ties with Pyongyang dating back to the trio's Cold War alliance, he told Asia Times Online.

Washington cut off oil supplies to North Korea after Pyongyang said in October 2002 that it had a covert nuclear program. North Korea then expelled UN atomic energy inspectors monitoring the nuclear complex frozen under a 1994 deal in which Pyongyang had agreed to end such work in exchange for fuel oil from the US. North Korea restarted a reactor at the complex, saying that it was acting in self-defense, but that it was still willing to talk to Washington and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The US says that the plutonium-based program could be used to build nuclear weapons. Washington has indicated that North Korea may already have two nuclear weapons and could build several more in short order.

The disclosure of North Korea's plans to become a world nuclear power has put Russia in a diplomatic quandary. And once again, Moscow is being forced to defend its friendly relationship with another country lumped into President George W Bush's axis of evil. Russia has denied allegations that it helped North Korea develop nuclear weapons after Pyongyang had violated its 1994 pledge to freeze its nuclear weapons program.

In March 2002, Russian government officials reportedly discussed with a North Korean parliamentary delegation the possibility of Moscow assisting Pyongyang in building civilian nuclear reactors. Russia's nuclear energy minister eventually denied any deals were struck then. Since then, Moscow has repeatedly dismissed allegations on its involvement in the North Korean nuclear sector.

The former Soviet Union was one of North Korea's main suppliers of arms when the two were Cold War allies. However, Russia now says that its nuclear cooperation with the isolationist communist country ended nearly a decade ago.

Yet apart from nuclear issues, Moscow has considerable economic interests on the divided peninsula. Subsequently, within the past two years, ties between Russia and North Korea have blossomed. Putin visited North Korea in July 2000 to become the first Kremlin leader ever to visit Pyongyang.

Last year, North Korea's Kim Jong-il undertook yet another rail trip to Russia. On August 23, Putin told Kim about the need for a railroad connecting the two Koreas with Europe via Russia. Russian railway officials say that joining the Trans-Siberian with the Trans-Korean network would enhance advantages, creating the world's longest railroad of 14,000 kilometers. Russia's Railway Ministry estimates that it could cost about 103 billion rubles ($3.26 billion), including upgrading the North Korean tracks and computerizing signal systems.

In 2000, Moscow and Pyongyang signed a new treaty to replace an outmoded Soviet-era accord of 1961. Russia has promised to help in rebuilding North Korean enterprises launched during the Soviet-era, including the power sector, although Moscow's aid was conditional on regular payments on Pyongyang's Soviet-era debt. This debt to Moscow is estimated at between $3 billion and $4.4 billion, the discrepancy is caused by disagreements over the exchange rates of the Soviet-era currency. North Korea has been in default on this debt since the late 1980s.

Therefore, Moscow may also try to tell Pyongyang that North Korea cannot expect the world to subsidize its needs for food and energy indefinitely. However, it remains to be seen whether Moscow's lobbying in Pyongyang will prove effective. For instance, in 2000 Russia announced an agreement to help North Korea launch communications satellites in return for a pledge from Kim Jong-il to halt a program to develop ballistic missiles. Kim subsequently said that the pledge was a mere "joke".

Meanwhile, with little chance of achieving an actual breakthrough on their territorial dispute, Russia and Japan are expected to discuss other issues during this week's summit. Tokyo is expected to agree with Moscow to resume operations to dismantle decommissioned nuclear submarines in Russia's Far East, where there are more than 40 vessels. The Japanese government has provided more than US$200 million (about 25 billion yen) to fund the operations, but because of the Japan-Russia nuclear weapons disposal committee's slow operations, none of the vessels have been dismantled to date. Most of the funds have been kept by the committee, headed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. On January 12, Koizumi is due to visit Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, presumably to revive the program.

In the immediate aftermath of Koizumi's trip, on January 13-15, Japan's Defense Agency chief, Shigeru Ishiba, is due to travel to Moscow to discuss "stability in the Asia-Pacific," according to RIA. It will be the first visit of a Japanese defense minister since 1999.

Russia and Japan have been feuding for 55 years over the four southernmost Kuril Islands. Moscow and Tokyo never signed a peace treaty at the end of World War II in 1945 because of Japan's claim to the four Islands. Russia has suggested signing the peace treaty before solving the territorial dispute, but Tokyo objects.

However, it is understood that the real issue of the territorial dispute is its economic dimension. The waters around the Kurils are among the richest fishing grounds in the world, as more than a million tons of valuable seafood products can be harvested there every year. Most Russian fishermen are keen to sell their catches to Japan, where they get better prices. Illegal Russian seafood exports to Japan are estimated at $700 million a year, according to Yevgeny Nazdratenko, head of the State Committee on Fishery.

On the other hand, officially Tokyo has been reluctant to develop economic ties with Moscow because of the territorial dispute. However, in a dramatic policy change, then prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in July 1997 proposed a plan to improve bilateral relations based on "trust, mutual benefit and a long-term viewpoint".

Until Hashimoto's policy turnaround, successive Japanese governments had said that there would be no expansion of economic ties, including aid or large-scale investment in Russia, without a solution to the territorial dispute. However, hopes to solve differences and sign a peace treaty before the end of the century failed to materialize - and still look far from certain.

The most recent Russo-Japanese summit meeting between Putin and former premier Yoshiro Mori took place on March 25, 2001 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. The two signed a joint statement confirming that their 1956 bilateral declaration become a "basis-setting legal document". The joint statement restated the validity of the 1956 declaration in which in article 9 Moscow pledged to return two islands - Habomai and Shikotan - once a peace treaty was signed.

In February 2002, Tokyo announced that the foreign ministers of both nations had agreed to conduct "two-track" talks by separating talks on condition for returning to Japan Shikotan Island and the Habomai group of islets from those of Kunashiri and Etorofu islands. The Russian Foreign Ministry has never confirmed the agreement announced by Japan.

The road map, to be signed later this week, reportedly suggests that Japan is no longer interested in seeking a two-phase return of the islands. Therefore, Moscow still refuses to offer Tokyo any major concessions. With a backdrop of growing discord, the chances of solving the territorial feud any time soon do not seem good.

Therefore, Russia presumably aims to rebuild relations with Japan based on economic ties and cooperation in international issues, such as North Korea. Correspondingly, the Russian stratagem arguably involves diluting the importance of the territorial issue in the overall framework of relations with Japan.

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