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A Gate to Asia: A Russian Gas Pipeline Proposal May Bring a Breath of Fresh Air to Long-Stalled Negotiations with North Korea

Kim Jong Il's mysterious ride through the Russian Far East came to a head with his meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which produced promises to resume six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program, as well as progress on other economic projects. While North Korea is seeking a "counterweight" to its heavy dependence on Chinese trade and aid, and Russia itself sees economic gains in a partnership with North Korea, a pipeline deal may be the key for changing the way the world negotiates with North Korea, experts say.

"Kim Jong Il expressed readiness to return to the six-party talks without any preconditions, and during the negotiations he would be ready to introduce a moratorium on the production of nuclear materials and the running of nuclear tests," said Russian presidential press-secretary Natalya Timakova after the North Korean leader met with Medvedev at a closed-off military base outside of Ulan-Ude.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, said that promises from North Korea that the talks would be renewed marked the successful and expected conclusion to the trip, but that their impact should not be overestimated. "This is a way for North Korea to indicate that they're interested in talking again, but we've seen these talks start up and break down many times before," he said. "Any statements here are cheap."

Far more important, he said, was the Russian proposal for the construction of a vast pipeline to North Korea to bring gas to both North and South Korea. President Dmitry Medvedev today said that he would be establishing a committee to oversee the project and had ordered Gazprom Head Alexei Miller to work closely with his counterparts in North and South Korea. "This Russian idea is the first time when North Korea is being offered equal participation in a key regional project and not just attempts to contain or award North Korea for behaving like a normal country," said Lukyanov. "This could change the pattern that we've seen with the six party-talks so far, but of course there is no guarantee."

Kerry Brown, the head of the Asia program at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, said that any concrete results from the talks were dubious, echoing widespread views that North Korea had walked out before on six-party talks. The pipeline too, he noted, was a project that would likely never come to fruition. "But the pipeline is something that hasn't been discussed before. It's fresh thinking, which is something we're desperately in need of," said Brown.

Kim Jong Il's visit to Russia marks the first time that the leader has ventured into Russia since 2002, when he met with Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. The leader's public appearances have become less frequent since a reported stroke in 2008 and journalists have been restricted access to Kim Jong-Il during the visit.

Kim Jong-Il has travelled more frequently in recent years to neighboring China, which holds a monopoly over trade and aid to the isolated nation. His visit to Russia was evidence that Pyongyang had taken stock of the situation and realized that "a counterweight to the Chinese is something that North Korea is desperately in need of," said Brown. Russia, too, seems keen on building contracts with its neighbor to the East, pledging last week to send 50,000 metric tons of grain in food aid to the country, which has been suffering from floods.

With China largely blocking Russian access to Asia, noted Alexander Rahr, director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, North Korea was a necessary ally for Russia in order to gain access to lucrative Asian markets. "Russia does not want to only be confronted with China in Asia and to conquer Asian markets. Russia's gate to Asia is only through China and it needs a corridor to South Korea, so they need the partnership of North Korea to get it," said Rahr.

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