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Russia: Moscow Lowers Expectations On North Korea Role

Just days after declaring it was ready to use its influence to help end tensions over North Korea, Russia is now working to dampen expectations. Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, on a mission to the region, said today that the crisis over North Korea's resumption of its nuclear program is primarily a dispute between North Korea and the United States. He said Russia will not mediate in the standoff.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From Moscow, just as from Washington, contradictory signals have emerged in the early days of the North Korean nuclear crisis -- indicating Russia, too, might be unsure which approach it should adopt toward Pyongyang.

Less than two weeks ago, meeting with his visiting South Korean counterpart Kim Hang-Kyung in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov declared that Russia and South Korea would pool their efforts to defuse tensions on the peninsula.

Losyukov announced his intention to travel to the region, and the media -- recalling Moscow's once close ties with Pyongyang and recent efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to rekindle relations -- raised hopes about Moscow's leverage power with Pyongyang.

But Losyukov, speaking in Beijing on -- en route to Pyongyang -- sought to dampen any hopes that Moscow would or could use its clout to make North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il rethink his escalating threats.

In a surprising turnaround, Losyukov said Moscow would not act as a formal intermediary in what he described as a dispute primarily involving North Korea and the United States: "I do believe that this situation must be solved at the level between North Korea and the United States. But on the other hand, many other countries have very serious interests in resolving this situation. Therefore, it is necessary to use strengths from all sides in order to help promote dialogue between the United States and North Korea."

What lies behind Russia's about-face? Moscow-based journalist Sergei Blagov, a specialist on Asian affairs, tells RFE/RL there could be a number of explanations -- several of them analogous to what has prevented the United States from speaking with one voice on North Korea: "This change in position does raise certain questions. The most logical explanation is that there is a whole range of factors. Maybe there is disagreement in the ranks of the Russian government or between the Foreign Ministry and other government bodies. Maybe some new information came in or perhaps other foreign policy considerations are weighing on Russia's Korea policy. It's probably a combination of factors, but we probably won't be able to judge for a few days or weeks, depending on how events play out."

Or perhaps a new wave of realism has dawned on Moscow, after the initial enthusiasm prompted by the world's expectation that Russia could play a major role in defusing the crisis subsided. A closer examination of the geopolitical realities, as journalists have begun to note, indicates Beijing has greater potential to influence Pyongyang, having long ago displaced Moscow as North Korea's main trade partner and interlocutor. Chinese officials might have reminded their guest of this during his visit.

Blagov: "Although the world media regularly tell us that Russia may have leverage vis-a-vis Pyongyang and could play a role in resolving this nuclear problem, whether this leverage really exists in a complicated question. Maybe some new information appeared, indicating that this supposed leverage is, in fact, not that great and therefore Russia now wants to step aside and wash its hands and not try to play an active role if it doesn't have enough means to do so."

Russia, he notes, has another good reason to rethink its pro-active approach to North Korea. The last time Russia tried its hand at negotiating a strategic agreement with Kim Jong-il, in the year 2000, it turned into a fiasco: "First, it was announced in Moscow that North Korea had agreed to give up its ballistic rocket program in exchange for Russia's launching of civilian satellites into space. And then, it turned out that it was a joke by Kim Jong-Il. So maybe Russia doesn't really have a firm grip on the degree of its ability to influence North Korea."

So far, North Korea continues to be the diplomatic hot potato no one wants to touch -- leaving Kim Jong-Il free to exploit the situation to maximum advantage.