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ANALYSIS-China and Russia lack clout to dictate to N. Korea
By John Ruwitch

BEIJING, Jan 17 (Reuters) - China and Russia may be North Korea's closest friends, but analysts are questioning whether they can bend the ear of the enigmatic "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.

Experts say Moscow and Beijing have the most direct lines of communication with Pyongyang of any country. And lately, the North's Cold War-era "big brothers" have joined diplomatic manoeuvring to end the nuclear standoff with the United States.

On Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov arrived in Beijing on his way to Pyongyang to try to help defuse the tension over the North's suspected nuclear-weapons programme.

But as the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang festers, what pressure can Russia and China -- neither wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea -- bring to bear on the Hermit Kingdom?

"That is the $64,000 question," said one diplomat in Beijing who follows events on the Korean peninsula closely.

Losyukov may offer Russia as a guarantor, possibly with China, of any security commitments made by the United States. But analysts say even Pyongyang's old allies seem to lack the clout to get their secretive former protege to take heed.

One key factor is out of Moscow's and Beijing's hands -- how much the inscrutable Kim trusts them.

In that, analysts say, Russia has a slight edge.

"It seems to me the Chinese make him nervous," the diplomat said in Beijing. "Russia makes him feel more comfortable."

Moscow's relations with Pyongyang, close in the Soviet period, cooled in the 1990s. But ties have improved under Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has met Kim three times in two years and travelled to North Korea in 2000.

Some analysts saw evidence of Russia's better relationship in news out of Pyongyang on Wednesday about New Year parties thrown separately by the Russian and Chinese embassies in North Korea.

The official KCNA news reports were brief, factual and almost identical.

But the report on the Russian party added: "The participants deepened friendly feelings, talking to each other about the fact that the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries are growing stronger as the days go amid the deep concern of leader Kim Jong-il and President V. V. Putin."


China may have spilled blood with North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War -- Chairman Mao Zedong even lost a son on the battlefield -- but their paths have diverged in recent decades.

Experts say Pyongyang sees ample reason to be suspicious of Beijing: its capitalist reform path, its 1992 diplomatic recognition of Pyongyang's arch enemy Seoul and, in the last year especially, its backing of some U.S. foreign-policy aims.

But regardless of how close or distant their political ties may be, North Korea may simply be unwilling to listen to third parties in the impasse with Washington, analysts say.

"Neither Russia nor other mediators can do much since this is a bilateral problem between Korea and USA," said Alexander Vorontsov, a top Russian expert on Korea.

Another diplomat in Beijing said the Russians were going in "to facilitate" not mediate. "(They) cannot use this word, you see. North Koreans, you remember, once said no mediators, so that's their position," he said.

North Korea has been adamant that it wants talks directly with the United States.

But for China and Russia, talks are just one avenue. Both countries also have some economic leverage over North Korea.

In this area, analysts say, China is the bigger player.

Aid experts say China provides the biggest source of the outside food and energy going into North Korea. One diplomat even said Chinese aid was the main reason the Kim regime was still in power.

China is extremely wary of the consequences were North Korea to collapse, but some said it would not rule out wielding its economic stick to get Pyongyang in line.

"I don't think we should preclude it," said Susan Shirk, a China hand at the University of California at San Diego's Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

"They would never want to do anything publicly, but if it could be done quietly and invisibly, I think they might do that."


In 1994, as tension reached a head over the North's nuclear ambitions and the United Nations was threatening sanctions, Beijing publicly urged caution and said it was against sanctions.

But in early June that year, an article in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao hinted at a big change in that position, saying in the event of an embargo, China would halt food and oil supplies to the North and cut border trade.

Within days, Pyongyang showed signs of softening. It started to talk about a deal to break the nuclear deadlock and invited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on a "personal" visit that became a key step toward the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Fast forward nine years and, as the threat of U.N. sanctions looms, the United States, Japan and South Korea are all pressing China and Russia to help broker a deal.

For Beijing, it is a balancing act. China is caught between an old alliance, the long-term risk of U.S. troops on its border and a flood of refugees if North Korea collapses. The prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea could also lead to Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan going nuclear.

"They don't want to publicly sanction them, but I think they will be very cautious and want a certain amount of pressure to be operating on them," Shirk said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth in Moscow, Jonathan Ansfield and Tamora Vidaillet in Beijing)

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