#4 - JRL 7019
January 15, 2003
Russia takes on role as a mediator
By Alex Rodriguez
Tribune foreign correspondent
MOSCOW -- Emerging as a key go-between in the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis, Russia on Tuesday assigned a top presidential envoy to shuttle among Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing to help resolve the standoff.
Among the G-8 industrialized nations, Russia has the closest ties with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, but so far it has limited its role to behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
That changed Tuesday when the Kremlin announced it will send Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, an expert in Asian affairs, to help mediate a multilateral resolution.
"We should find a political and diplomatic solution to the situation in North Korea," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters. "This is of fundamental importance."
Washington has looked to North Korea's two longtime allies, Russia and China, for help in exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on Kim to back down over reactivating his country's nuclear program. Moscow and Beijing have reacted warily, urging settlement through political channels but balking at any request to pressure Kim.
Moscow's decision to step up its involvement in the impasse comes after the United States urged Russia last week to become more involved in the standoff, accusing the Kremlin of being "in denial" about North Korea's nuclear capability.
U.S. intelligence officials have said Pyongyang may already have one or two nuclear weapons; Moscow contends North Korea is at least 50 years away from having such capabilities.
Exactly how effective of an intermediary Russia can be remains to be seen. Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the few international leaders to establish a rapport with Kim's insular, secretive regime, meeting with the Pyongyang ruler for talks three times in the last three years.
Analysts say Russia's influence over North Korea in the current crisis is hampered by its own lack of economic clout. Trade between Russia and North Korea has dropped 80 percent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hitting about $115 million in 2001.
In Soviet days, trade between the two countries topped $1.5 billion, said Vadim Tkachenko, an analyst with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Center for Korean Studies.
"Russia has little influence on Pyongyang, because it doesn't possess the economic power and economic opportunity that North Korea badly needs," said Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation's office in Moscow.
"What is happening now is nothing more than blackmail to get massive economic aid from the U.S. In this case, Russia can't offer much to North Korea," he added.
Perhaps Russia's biggest value as a go-between in the crisis is its knowledge of how to conduct talks with North Korea.