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N.K. leader’s Russia visit aims to bolster economic cooperation

Kim, Medvedev expected to discuss gas pipeline, railway construction


North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to Russia appears aimed at bolstering bilateral economic cooperation in some major projects including the construction of a gas pipeline and railroad to connect Russia and the two Koreas, experts here said Sunday.

Also high on the agenda of the summit between Kim and President Dmitry Medvedev may be the resumption of the six-party denuclearization talks and the communist state’s ongoing hereditary power succession, they said.

Striving to enhance the estranged relationship with its Cold War ally, the reclusive leader may also seek to reduce its undue economic and diplomatic reliance on China and raise its bargaining power in the stalled multilateral talks, they noted.

Kim, 69, crossed into Russia aboard an armored train on Saturday. He was to visit Siberia and the Far East region at the invitation of the Russian president, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said. Kim’s heir apparent Jong-un was not on the official entourage list, according to the KCNA.

Kim visited Russia’s Far East region in 2002 at the invitation of then President Vladimir Putin. In July 2001, he toured major Russia cities including its capital Moscow for 24 days.

“As the North seeks to become a ‘strong, prosperous state’ next year and needs economic aid to solidify its power succession, economic issues will top the agenda for the summit,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“The North may also seek to gain Russia’s support for the power succession while trying to reduce its burden stemming from its heavy reliance on China.”

Kim is expected to hold the summit talks with Medvedev in Ulan Ude, the capital city of Russia’s Buryat Republic, on Tuesday, according to diplomatic sources.

Experts said that the talks between the two leaders could help improve the bilateral relationship that has been estranged as the North has turned to its key ally China to address such issues as its economic travails and international isolation.

The talks could also be a crucial chance for the leaders to push for major economic projects such as the construction of a pipeline, which would deliver Russia’s natural gas to the two Koreas, and of the Trans Korean Railway and Trans Siberian Railway.

Although Russia and the two Koreas have long discussed the projects, little progress has been made due to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and stalled inter-Korean ties, which have been exacerbated following North Korean provocations.

Although the three countries should cooperate to carry out these projects, North Korea and Russia have continued their bilateral cooperation over the railway construction.

As a first step in their efforts to construct the TSR and TKR, the two signed an agreement in 2008 to renovate the railway between the North’s Rajin and Russia’s Khasan, and construct a container terminal at the North’s northeastern port of Rajin.

By establishing the 52-kilometer railway, Russia seeks to secure a crucial transport route for the Northeast Asia region. It is considering transporting cargo shipments, which come to the Rajin port from the region, to its Far East region.

According to the Korea Transport Institute, as of May, the renovation work on a 12.8 kilometer section of the Rajin-Khasan railway has been completed. Eight stations along the railway have been under renovation.

As soon as the railway renovation is finished, the two countries are to begin constructing the container terminal at the Rajin port.

The summit talks are also expected to affect the resumption of the six-party talks, which the North has sought to help alleviate its economic travails and break its international isolation resulting from its nuclear programs.

“The North might have felt the need to improve the ties with Russia ahead of the resumption of the six-party talks as they need its support to lead the situation in its own favor,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University.

As the North is expected to seek Russia’s support in the negotiations, Russia may emerge as an influential player in the reopening of the six-party talks. Russia has thus far shown an equivocal stance without explicitly taking the side of any group.

Russia has thus far played a peripheral role in the multilateral negotiations with the North heavily depending on China while the U.S., South Korea and Japan have cooperated to present a united stance toward the denuclearization of North Korea.

North Korea and China have called for the early resumption of the talks without any preconditions while the other parties called on the North to take preliminary denuclearization steps first, which include the return of international nuclear inspectors to its Yongbyon nuclear complex and inspection of its uranium enrichment program.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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