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U.S./Russia: Joint Diplomacy May Bear Fruit In North Korea

  • Kathleen Moore

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov ended a visit to North Korea yesterday by saying Pyongyang is ready for constructive dialogue with both the United States and Japan. Ivanov's announcement came as Asian leaders gathered for a conference in Brunei, and it has prompted speculation of a possible meeting there between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart.

Prague, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov ended a visit to North Korea yesterday by announcing that Pyongyang is ready to talk to the U.S. and Japan "with no pre-conditions."

It's the latest sign that North Korea appears willing to mend fences with the outside world and a success, some say, for Russian diplomacy in the region.

The announcement followed a statement by Pyongyang that it "regretted" its role in a naval clash with South Korea the end of June, which killed five South Korean sailors and an unspecified number of North Koreans.

Talks are now on between the two Koreas, as well as between North Korea and Japan. And the Pyongyang announcement also follows another shift in policy on the domestic front, as the authorities have tentatively begun to liberalize the state-controlled economy by freeing some prices and wages.

The announcement also prompted speculation that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, also on an Asian tour, will meet his North Korean counterpart Paek Nam-Sun at a conference of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei this week. This would be the highest-level contact between the two sides since U.S. President George W. Bush took office.

But speaking in Singapore today before he left for Brunei, Powell was circumspect as to the chances of a meeting. "I still do not have anything to say to you yet with respect to a meeting with the [North Korean] foreign minister. I will make a judgment on that after I get to Brunei and I've had a chance to consult with my other colleagues."

Ivanov, who is also expected in Brunei, is on a regional tour that has included several firsts. Ivanov traveled to Pyongyang from Seoul, becoming the first foreign minister to fly across the border between the two Koreas. He was also the first high-ranking foreign guest in the two capitals since the naval clash in June.

The Russian daily "Izvestiya" said Pyongyang's apparent readiness to talk was the result of a flurry of diplomatic activity involving Ivanov, his deputy Aleksandr Losyukov, and Japanese and American officials during this past month. "Mr. Ivanov's mission has been a success as a whole, though you can't call it a triumph," today's "Kommersant" Russian daily wrote.

Also writing in "Kommersant," commentator Sergei Strokan said it's becoming a bit of a trend for Russia to play the "Korean card" in summer, when other political topics are scarce. First there was Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Pyongyang in 2000, then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's mammoth train journey across Russia last August -- and now Ivanov's visit.

These have all been taken as proof of how ties have strengthened between Moscow and Pyongyang in the last couple of years, reversing the decline of relations under Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Aidan Foster-Carter is a leading U.K.-based expert on North and South Korea. He says it's not yet clear if North Korea is serious about coming out of its international isolation. And even if it is, he says he doubts if Russia can take much credit, as other players in the region such as China enjoy much more clout in both capitals.

Foster-Carter says that Russia should take care, too, in playing its role as peace broker. For one thing, North Korea's relations with the outside world are a "roller-coaster ride" -- talks are on and then can suddenly be called off.

North Korea is also a notoriously unpredictable partner, as Putin found, to his cost, when he arrived at a G-7 summit two years ago fresh from his landmark visit to Pyongyang. Foster-Carter explains: "He came with some wonderful-sounding promise from Kim Jong-il that [North] Korea might drop its missile program if other people might launch its rockets. It sounded good, gave Mr. Putin quite a bit of clout at the [G-7] and then Kim Jong-il promptly said 'I was joking.' So I think the Russians, although they are trying to cultivate North Korea these days -- they humored Kim Jong-il last summer with the endless train ride holding up all the traffic across Russia -- nonetheless, it is a slightly risky business. The suspicion must be that if and when the North Koreans are ready to talk -- be it to South Korea or America or Japan -- they'll just pick up the phone and not go through Moscow."

Aside from regaining influence in the region, Foster-Carter says Russia has another material interest in fostering relations with both Koreas -- it would like to see a railroad linking the three countries. But here, too, there are complications. North Korea has yet to approve the cross-border link with South Korea, and its railways are in a disastrous state.