[TODAY]Russia ups the diplomatic ante

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[TODAY]Russia ups the diplomatic ante

Until now, we've always thought that China was the country that exercised the largest influence on North Korea. Certainly the South Korean government has not hidden its impression that China's interventions have played a major role in allowing the North-South dialogue, including the summit meeting on June 15, 2000, to progress this far. Seoul's low-profile diplomacy toward China could also be explained in that context.

But the comments of Russian participants at the Korea-Russia Forum held in Seoul recently tell a different story. According to the Russians, North Korea now relies far more on Russia for advice on its foreign affairs than on China. In particular, the Russians claim that they played a key role in arranging the North Korea-Japan summit last month.

According to a diplomatic source in Moscow, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has met with the Russian ambassador in Pyeongyang more than 20 times this year alone. I asked Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexandr Losyukov what Russia's role was in the North's rapprochement with Japan.

When Mr. Losyukov visited Japan in June, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi asked him to deliver a message to North Korea calling for an improvement of relations between Japan and North Korea. The Russian diplomat delivered the message, and when Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Pyeongyang at the end of July, Kim Jong-il also voiced a wish to improve relations with Japan. Those words were relayed to the Japanese foreign minister a few days later at the Association of South East Asian Nations regional forum in Brunei. At the forum, Mr. Ivanov also arranged for a brief but significant meeting between the U.S. and North Korean foreign ministers.

In late June, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit meeting in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada, that he would like to meet Mr. Kim. That message was immediately delivered to Pyeongyang. Reportedly, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim discussed North Korea-Japan relations in depth when they met in Vladivostok on Aug. 23. On Aug. 30, North Korea and Japan announced that Mr. Koizumi would visit Pyeong- yang. Mr. Koizumi called Mr. Putin immediately afterward to thank him.

There is a reason why North Korea considered Russia's help more important than China's in digging itself out of its international isolation. Chinese President Jiang Zemin's international influence is not as broad as that of Mr. Putin. What North Korea ultimately wants is to improve relations with Washington, and the person who can persuade U.S. President George W. Bush to agree to do so is Mr. Putin, not Mr. Jiang.

So while we were concentrating on China, Russia has set its hooks deep into the affairs of the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Koizumi repaid Mr. Putin for his assistance by suggesting to Mr. Kim that they should expand the four-way talks among North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States on Korean affairs to include Japan and Russia as well. Russia long wanted to join such talks.

According to Mr. Losyukov, Russia first proposed such an idea to North Korea in 1994, but Pyeongyang refused. One source said the refusal was based on North Korea's desire to keep the Japanese out of Korean affairs; the Russians judged that the time was not right and bided its time.

But the meeting between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Kim changed all that, so Russia brought up the subject again. Mr. Losyukov said he discussed the idea of six-party talks with the U.S. ambassador in Moscow last week. He said the ambassador had no concrete answer at the time. Apparently, Russia believes that China and South Korea will support Russia and Japan in their proposal to join the talks.

Russia also was enthusiastic about connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway to railroad lines across the Korean Peninsula. While the six-party talks would increase Russia's influence on the peninsula, the railroad project would also have some tangible financial benefits. Russia seems serious about the idea of writing off a $1.5 billion debt it owes Seoul from its $2 billion investment needed to help renovate North Korean railroads.

Once tension on the peninsula drops to a certain point, Russia and Japan would have to be players, but it is still unclear whether the Korea talks will be six-way or a "four-plus-two" format. But in view of rapid changes surrounding North Korea, internationalizaton of Korean issues seems to come earlier than expected.

Russia seems eager to fill the policy vacuum left by Washington's rigid stance toward Pyeongyang. We must readjust our Japan and Russia policy.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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