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Transitions Online
January 19, 2003
Russia: Peacemaker on the Korean Peninsula?
Russia is trying to play the role of global mediator as its envoy hands over a peace plan to the North Korean leader.
By Sergei Borisov

ULYANOVSK, Russia--Russia has intervened in the crisis between North Korea and the United States, sending a special envoy to North Korea with a new plan that it hopes will bring Pyongyang and Washington to the negotiating table.

Russia believes that, thanks to its historic ties with North Korea and as one of the countrys few allies, it could succeed where U.S. efforts have so far failed and help force North Korea to back out of its nuclear weapons program.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, Moscow's top Asia expert, met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il today, 20 January. So far, details of the visit are scant, though Losyukov emerged from earlier talks saying that the dialogue was "very active and substantive, while the atmosphere at the talks is very warm, friendly, and constructive.

However, news agency reports suggest that Losyukov expects a response to Russias plan during the visit.

RUSSIA AS MEDIATOR

Russia avoids calling itself a mediator in the possible settlement of the North Korea conflict. According to Losyukov, quoted by Reuters, the aim of the mission is to promote dialogue between the United States and North Korea."

However, a day before Losyukov flew out, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called on Russia to become a leading mediator. "All elements of this settlement are already present and are on the table, he told the press. There is a need for an intermediary, and Russia can play a leading role here."

Losyukov took with him a plan that would offer a package solution to the Korea issue. The initiative, according to the Interfax news agency, calls for achieving non-nuclear status for the Korean peninsula, strict observance of the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and the fulfillment of obligations under other international agreements, including the 1994 framework agreement.

Under the terms of the 1994 agreement, North Korea froze its nuclear program in return for aid.

The current crisis erupted in October after Pyongyang admitted that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The United States responded by halting food supplies to the country, linking humanitarian aid to political settlement on the crisis.

North Korea then reactivated its nuclear facilities, expelled inspectors from the IAEA, and said that it was pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latest escalation came on 11 January, when the North Korean leadership also threatened to end a moratorium on ballistic missile tests.

U.S. President George W. Bush has now said the United States will begin to send food and energy aid again if North Korea abandons its plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Russias official position is that humanitarian and economic aid programs should be resumed and North Korea should receive guarantees of its security.

Losyukov arrived in Pyongyang after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Wenchang in Beijing. According to the Chinese Peoples Daily, the Chinese leadership expressed the hope that his mediation will succeed, raising the possibility that China, North Koreas other major ally, supports the package solution proposed by Moscow.

THE PROSPECTS

At Moscow's airport, Losyukov said he was going with a certain amount of optimism. But I can't say that we will come back with a solution worked out."

Russias talks with North Korea are just one of a series of recent diplomatic initiatives intended to reduce tensions and find a solution. During the week, a senior State Department envoy, James Kelly, went on a whistle-stop tour of South Korea, China, and Japan, while North Korea sent its UN ambassador to meet an important figure in the Clinton administration.

Russia clearly believes a softly-softly approach stands the best chance of success. Speaking to Reuters, Losyukov said that "in this situation, you cannot speak in the language of ultimatums and strict demands. You need to approach the situation in a more delicate manner."

He was echoing the line taken up several days earlier by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who told the BBC on 14 January that the problem should be solved by political means without issuing diktats and exerting pressure on North Korea. He suggested that there were already certain hopeful steps and statements by North Korea that would return the situation to what it was before the current crisis.

ATTITUDES AT HOME

Whether Russias initiative has any chance of success will become clearer after Kim Jong Il states his position on his plan. However, the Russian media appears ambivalent about the political capital that it could acquire if it does manage to help resolve the crisis.

So far, the papers have carried few commentaries about the potential significance of Russias emergence as a go-between in the crisis. However, ambivalence was on clear display on 18 January, when commentators expressed their views on one of Russian TVs leading analytical programs, Postskript.

The shows producers suggested that the crisis would end in a new bargain and that North Koreas blackmail would have succeeded. By playing his nuclear card, a reporter for Postskript said, Kim Jong Il would demonstrate the limits and paradoxes of American might: that the United States could not allow itself to strike North Korea but is prepared to attack Iraq.

Vladimir Lukin, a Duma deputy from the Yabloko faction and a former ambassador to Washington, said the lessons to rogue states could be very dangerous. If this blackmail is a success, there could be a chain reaction of blackmail, a chain reaction of temptation of all countries to solve their problems by blackmailing big countries, he asserted. And a chain of the spread of weapons of mass destruction will begin. That, said Lukin, must not be allowed, as it would mean suicide for humanity.

Political analyst and anchor of the program Alexei Pushkov suggested that Russia had been driven into a corner by the United States. On the one hand, we and the United States should together keep North Korea from creating a nuclear weapon, he said. On the other, by starting a fight with the states in the axis of evil in the form that he does it, George Bush Jr. has opened a Pandoras box; in other words, a whole train of acute international crises with the danger of nuclear weapons or other means of mass destruction being used.

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