[TODAY]Riding the Iron Horse: Kim Visits Russia

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[TODAY]Riding the Iron Horse: Kim Visits Russia

The Ural Mountains stretch 2,500 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan in central Asia; they are the geographical border between Asia and Europe. On the far side of the Urals is Russian prairie and on this side is the lowlands of western Siberia.

Traveling at 40 kilometers an hour on a special train, Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, visited Europe for the first time since taking power in his country.

People on the far side of the Urals do not understand why Mr. Kim spent a week on a train when he could have flown to Moscow in about 10 hours. The European press caricatured Mr. Kim's long, slow journey as resembling those of Stalinist dictators - a time capsule reopened. With their stress on efficiency and rationality, it is hard for Europeans to understand why a secluded country's leader would cross the Eurasian land mass, viewing weapons factories and Lake Baikal in a relaxed mood.

One of the ideas Mr. Kim might have come up while traveling in the train is now stirring controversy among politicians in South Korea. In June 2000, Mr. Kim reportedly told President Kim Dae-jung that he agreed that U.S. troops should remain in the South. But in the communique signed by Mr. Kim and President Putin of Russia, Mr. Kim demanded that the U.S. military withdraw from the South. Maybe Chairman Kim will be wearing a smile of satisfaction as he recrosses the Ural Mountains on his way home.

The North made clear its position that withdrawal of the U.S. military in the South was "a pressing issue" for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the Russians expressed their understanding of this position. It is completely understandable that the South worries about the issue. Did President Kim not emphasize that the North's agreement on a continued U.S. military presence was one of the three major achievements of the North-South summit last year?

President Kim may be confused because of the North's change in attitude, but the public is confused as much as the president, not knowing whether to believe our president's words or the Moscow document. The ruling party spokesman who said the opposition's reaction to the declaration was an attempt to undermine the results of the North-South summit talks seems to have some problems in realizing the importance of the issue.

Several interpretations of the current situation come to mind. Chairman Kim may have verbally agreed to the continued stationing of U.S. forces here with President Kim during the warm glow and optimism over North-South relations that surrounded the Pyongyang summit, but may have changed his mind after the Bush administration took office. North Korea does not keep written promises, so it is even easier for them to ignore verbal ones.

Or the North might have demanded the withdrawal in order to balance the agenda for future negotiations with the United States. President Bush said that restraining the North's conventional military power was crucial to improving the relationship between the two countries. A demand that the United States pull its forces out of Korea would give the North its own negotiating card.

But we Koreans seem to be unable to see the forest for the trees - our preoccupation with military issues hides the real meaning of Mr. Kim's trip across the Urals.

Since the beginning of the Bush administration, the relationship between the United States and Russia has cooled while Russia and Europe are getting closer as time passes; Mr. Putin now regularly participates in EU summit conferences. By visiting Moscow, Chairman Kim has moved closer to Europe. This situation was foreshadowed when EU representatives led by Sweden's Prime Minister Gouran Persson visited the North in June. It is natural and magnificent for Chairman Kim to make plans to connect the Korean Peninsula and the Iberian Peninsula via Siberia on an

"Iron Silk Road," traveling on a cross-country train through Siberia. If Chairman Kim's perspective has broadened to include Eurasia, there will be no harmful effects on future relations between the North and the South.

The Moscow Declaration especially draws our attentions since it mentions the reopening of a North Korean dialogue with the United States. North Korea's call for stronger international efforts to prevent terrorism seems to be a declaration that it is not a "terrorism-sponsoring state," but on the contrary, is active in combatting terror. Although the North's argument that its missiles do not threaten countries that respect the North is not new, it could be interpreted as the North's call for negotiations with the United States.

If we see the Moscow Declaration as a whole, the pros and cons are balanced. And there are pros and cons as well concerning the question of a U.S. military withdrawal. We can observe traces of thorough political calculations by Chairman Kim and President Putin. Of course we should pay attention to the military issue, but we should not overlook the big picture of Chairman Kim's European visit and relations between the two Koreas and the four powerful countries that surround it.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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