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Russia: North Korea's Kim Visits Russian Far East Amid U.S. Criticism

  • Gregory Feifer

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is touring the Russian Far East this week on a four-day trip. As he prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, a top U.S. official is lashing out at Moscow for cultivating relations with "terrorist states." But the Kremlin is playing down Kim's visit, saying economic cooperation with the isolated Stalinist state is beneficial.

Moscow, 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il tomorrow in the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. The two leaders are due to discuss plans to link the two Koreas to Russia and Europe via Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as other ways to increase integration.

The meeting comes as Washington steps up its criticism of Moscow's ties with U.S. adversaries. Kim's visit follows a series of other high-profile contacts between Russia and the other two member states of what U.S. President George W. Bush calls the "axis of evil." Bush accuses the countries of seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday lashed out at Moscow for "parading" its relationships with Iraq, Libya, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea. He said such cooperation "sends a signal out across the globe" that Russia thinks it is a good idea to deal with "terrorist states."

Russia said on 18 August that it plans to sign a $40 billion trade and economic-cooperation agreement with Iraq. Last month, Moscow unveiled plans to build five nuclear reactors in Iran, in addition to one already nearing completion.

Russian officials stress that Kim's visit is an unofficial one and that Putin had been previously scheduled to fly to the Far East.

Politika Foundation director Vyacheslav Nikonov refuted the opinion that Russia's cooperation with so-called "states of concern" reflects Putin's disillusionment with the White House's failure to grant Russia concessions in return for its recent support of U.S. policies. Nikonov said the Kremlin most likely coordinates its actions with Washington. "I completely disagree with regard [to the opinion] that those steps being taken by Putin in the direction of Tehran, Baghdad, or Pyongyang are some kind of call to the United States and, moreover, because America hasn't done something for Russia," Nikonov said.

Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang soured after the Soviet collapse but seem to have found new life under Putin, who signed a number of economic and strategic agreements with Kim last year.

Kim's visit comes as North Korea embarks on cautious reforms, including the incorporation of some market policies. Russian officials say Kim is interested in Russia's experiences with economic reform.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov stressed on 20 August that Kim's four-day visit was the North Korean leader's own initiative. "We are happy to give him the opportunity," Losyukov said, in statements reported by Interfax. "We think that if he wants to become acquainted with our agricultural sector, our plans, that it's a good sign."

Riding in his personal armored train, Kim crossed into Russia on 20 August, and has been entertained by musical bands, river cruises, and celebratory dinners. On his arrival, the reclusive North Korean leader was met by a number of officials, including regional governor Sergei Darkin and Konstantin Pulikovskii, Putin's envoy to the country's Far East.

Pulikovskii was reported to have discussed boosting economic ties between his region and North Korea, and he joined Kim's entourage to accompany him for the rest of his trip.

Most of North Korea's annual trade with Russia involves its eastern regions, where North Korea sends indentured laborers to cover some of its debt to Moscow. North Korean officials are reported to want to boost trade with Russia to $100 million a year.

Projects currently under discussion include oil refining, electrical-power engineering, forestry, agriculture, and transportation.

The North Korean dictator on 21 August toured the Sukhoi fighter-jet factory in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, 920 kilometers north of Vladivostok. He also visited a shipyard and met with local and military officials, capping his day with a boat ride down the Amur River.

Kim arrived today in the city of Khabarovsk to tour a pharmaceutical plant and cable factory. He is scheduled to visit the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok tomorrow, in addition to touring a children's center and a Pacific Fleet warship.

Widely reported to be afraid of flying, Kim dismissed such rumors today, saying he plans to fly to Moscow on his next trip. He told ITAR-TASS that he prefers trains because it is possible to learn more about a country from a train window than from a plane.

Last year, Kim traversed Russia on a two-week train trip that included a warm reception by Putin in Moscow. The odyssey caused traffic jams and snarled railroad schedules.

The visit prompted popular outrage at home and ridicule abroad. Critics questioned why an ostensibly democratic Russia was going out of its way to fete the Stalinist leader at the expense of its own population.

News agencies report Kim as saying he wants his current trip to avoid such delays, but Russian television has been showing long lines of cars at rail crossings ahead of Kim's train.