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Russia: North Korea's Kim Begins Long Journey Home

  • Kathleen Moore

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il today headed back to Moscow after a two-day visit to the Russian city of St. Petersburg. He is scheduled to stay in the capital overnight, before starting his journey home to North Korea on the Trans-Siberian railway tomorrow. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox looks at the significance of Kim's visit to Russia and what, if anything, it has accomplished.

Prague, 7 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- He lingered at the beer-tasting, but decided against the Lenin museum tour.

Not a surprising decision for an ordinary tourist in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. But this was no ordinary tourist.

This was North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, on a journey to Russia that has already clocked up nearly 7,000 kilometers of rail travel and generated more publicity than any other foreign delegation in recent memory. By the time he returns home later this month, the trip will have taken him more than three weeks.

Kim's journey to Russia -- his first as North Korean leader -- began almost two weeks ago, when his 21-car, bullet-proof train crossed the border into Russia at Vladivostok.

Kim finally arrived in Moscow over the weekend for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two signed what was termed the "Moscow Declaration," with both countries pledging support for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and opposition to U.S. plans to build a missile defense system.

The declaration also says North Korea's missile program is "peaceful in nature" and poses no threat to nations respecting North Korea's sovereignty, although the country did agree to a moratorium on ballistic missile launches until 2003. Russia also said it understands North Korean demands for an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

But it was not the dry declaration that filled Russian and Western news reports.

Rather, it was the odd details that shed light on the reclusive North Korean leader, much of whose life is still shrouded in mystery.

There was his alleged fear of flying -- hence the marathon train journey; the dish served in Kim's train called "heavenly cow" that turned out to be roasted donkey; and the brewery tour where he stayed for an hour and a half instead of a scheduled 20 minutes and had cases of Baltika beer loaded onto his train.

Yesterday, Kim recommended that his delegation visit the Smolniy museum, which houses the office from which Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin directed the October Revolution. But Kim himself decided to have a working breakfast with St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev instead. He said he remembered very well all the places connected with Lenin he had seen with his father on a previous visit in 1959.

That wasn't the only occasion where the morning meal took precedence over official business.

Last week Kim failed to show up at an official welcoming ceremony in Ulan-Ude, preferring to breakfast with Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin's personal envoy in Russia's Far East, during the one-hour stopover.

But no need to worry -- the gifts Kim was meant to receive will stay there until he returns along the Trans-Siberian railway on his way back to Pyongyang.

There has been no mention, however, of a pilgrimage to the Siberian town rumored to be Kim's birthplace in 1941, when his father was in exile in the former Soviet Union. Official accounts say Kim was born in a log cabin near North Korea's highest mountain, beneath two rainbows and a bright, previously undiscovered star.

On a darker note, human rights observers urged Russia to allow access to Siberian labor camps after reports said North Koreans were working there, for free or negligible wages, to pay off their country's billions of dollars of debt to Russia.

Kim's trip comes a year after Putin ended a frosty decade of distrust between the two countries by becoming the first Kremlin leader to visit Pyongyang. Kim then agreed to a return visit, but no schedule was ever publicly fixed. His current trip began just hours after officials confirmed it would actually happen.

This is not to say relations have been humming along smoothly since Putin visited the impoverished communist country last year. The Russian president left North Korea saying Kim had offered to end the country's missile programs if others would help launch its satellites. But Putin was severely embarrassed when Kim later said this had been a joke.

Adam Ward, an Asia specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says Putin may have been especially keen to make Kim's visit a success after such an embarrassing episode. Ward says the leader's trip confirms that North Korea has embarked on a more outward-reaching foreign policy. He says it's also been an opportunity for Russia to reassert its influence in the region, as Russia is not a party to the talks on security between North and South Korea, the U.S., and China. And it fits into Russia's broader strategic objectives:

"The logic runs that if you take steps to show that North Korea is less menacing -- or appears less menacing -- to the U.S., then the rationale for deploying a missile defense system is also reduced. I think this is one of the reasons President Putin has been keen to engage Pyongyang and to bring it out into the open a bit."

The U.S. has been watching Kim's visit with interest, saying yesterday that it is prepared to hold serious discussions with North Korea without any preconditions.

Though the Moscow declaration reiterates North Korea's opposition to U.S. troops in South Korea, Ward says that one aspect of Kim's visit should reassure the U.S.:

"Some things have been reaffirmed, certainly. One of the most important of those is the fact that North Korea has decided to reiterate its position that it won't conduct any further missile tests until 2003. This is an undertaking which Kim Jong-il had already given to the Clinton administration in 1999 when it was undertaking attempts to negotiate on the missile issues, so it will be welcomed, I think, by the Bush administration that this has been reiterated in a very public way."

He says the trip is part of North Korea's efforts to generate sympathy for its position, though its transformation from a "rogue state" into a "vogue state" -- as one observer has put it -- is not yet complete.

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