Strengthening ties

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

The Moscow Declaration issued at the end of a historic summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pledges strategic cooperation between the two countries and opposes the U.S. plan to build a National Missile Defence system.

THE historic summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il concluded in Moscow with the release of the "Moscow Declaration" on August 4. The document pledged to continue the strategic cooperation between the two countries and strongly opposed the Bush administration's plan to build a National Missile Defence (NMD) system. Both leaders described the summit meeting as a "historic landmark in efforts to strengthen peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region and the world".

The North Korean leader had reached Moscow after travelling by an armoured 21-compartment train for nine days. Most of his journey was on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Kim has shown a marked preference for travelling by rail. The two visits he made to Beijing were also by rail. Some commentators said that Kim wanted to replicate the trip made by his father, the late President Kim Il Sung, to Russia in 1984. Kim Il Sung went to Moscow by train, travelling in the same manner and visiting the same cities.

There were reports in the Russian media that although President Vladimir Putin had offered to put his official plane at the disposal of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il preferred the longer and time-consuming route. The Russian public seemed to have taken a liking to the North Korean leader despite some of the inconveniences his travel itinerary had caused. Travel plans of many Russians were upset as passenger traffic was disrupted on the busy route Kim took.

Before leaving for Moscow, Kim told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass that the stories appearing in the Western media about his country's missile programmes were a lie. Kim insisted that the missile programme was a peaceful one and that the claims of the United States were "nothing but a lie to hide its intention to dominate other countries". U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was in Moscow a week before Kim's arrival, said in the Russian capital that the alleged proliferation of North Korean ballistic missiles threatened the security of both the U.S. and Russia.

It is apparent from the outcome of the Moscow summit that the assertions of Condoleezza Rice did not cut much ice in Moscow. Rice said that the U.S. had "laid out for Russia and most of the world a path of cooperation", which Moscow had refused. Only a few countries like India have fallen for the U.S. bait of "cooperative relationship" in return for support for the NMD.

President Putin, during his visit to Pyongyang in 2000, had focussed on the missile issue and said that the North Korean government had assured him that it would observe a moratorium on the testing of long-range rockets until 2003. This was a restatement of Pyongyang's commitment to suspend the testing and export of missiles while seeking to improve ties with the U.S. Ties with the U.S. had improved to such an extent that President Bill Clinton even contemplated a visit to North Korea before he quit office.

Moreover, the South Korean government recently stated that North Korea had been neither developing nor producing missiles with a range of 1,300 km since Pyongyang signed the Geneva framework agreement in September 1999. Officials in Moscow, like their counterparts in several capitals, feel that North Korea does not have the wherewithal to go in for an expensive missile programme at such a critical juncture of its existence.

During his talks with Putin in Moscow, the North Korean leader reiterated that his country was no "rogue state" that threatened global security. One of the arguments put forward by the proponents of the NMD was that countries such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, classified by the U.S. as "rogue states", would develop the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with missiles in the near future. However, there are not many takers for this argument even in the U.S. "North Korea asserts that its missile programme is peaceful in nature and does not present a threat to any nation respecting North Korea's sovereignty," the Moscow Declaration stated.

The Declaration also reaffirmed the commitment of both countries to uphold the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Both countries are united in their stand that the NMD programme is aimed at undermining the ABM. "The 1992 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is the cornerstone of strategic stability and the foundation of further reduction of strategic offensive arms," the statement said. During his talks with Putin, Kim reiterated the North Korean demand for the withdrawal of the 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. He described it as a "pressing problem".

The presence of the U.S. troops with nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula is considered by several observers as a destabilising factor in the region and a disincentive for the reunification of the two Koreas. Russia said that it "understood" the North Korean insistence on the withdrawal of the U.S. troops. Although Moscow backed the "reunification" of the Koreas, it said that it would not interfere in the process.

Blatant attempts by the U.S. to derail the reunification process have led to the stalling of the dialogue between North and South Korea. There are signs that Washington is wary of the long-term consequences of Korean reunification. Senior officials in the Bush administration have been trying to convince South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to take a tougher stand in his dealings with the North. South Korean cooperation is important for the North, which is passing through a bad economic phase. Moreover, nationalist sentiment is also growing in South Korea. Many Koreans feel insulted by the continuing presence of U.S. Army bases and troops on their territory more than 50 years after the Korean War.

Meanwhile, Russia has expressed its intention to strengthen its ties with both Pyongyang and Seoul. Earlier in the year, Putin had visited South Korea. Moreover, Russia believes that having good relations with both countries will help speed up the reunification process. A subject that received high priority during the North Korean leader's visit to Moscow was the linking of the Trans Siberian Railway to the inter-Korean rail line. Such linking would help Russia boost its trade with South Korea and help South Korean products reach European markets in a short time.

Currently, Moscow has more financial dealings with Seoul than with Pyongyang. North Korea owes around $6 billion to Moscow by way of the debts it has to repay the former Soviet Union. Moscow hopes to recoup some of this money by helping North Korea modernise its industrial and engineering base, which the Soviet Union had helped build in the 1950s and the 1960s. Currently, trade between Russia and North Korea is worth only about $105 million. Manpower is North Korea's main item of export to Russia; it was worth an estimated $50.4 million in 2000. North Korean workers are mainly employed in lumber camps in Russia's inhospitable Far East.

Moscow's warm relations with the North symbolises Putin's determination to drop completely the pro-Western trappings that characterised Russian foreign policy in the early post-Soviet days. The "dynamic rapprochement" with Beijing is another example of this change in policy. Moreover, relations with other countries having Communist governments, such as Cuba and Vietnam, have also improved dramatically since Putin took over. Putin has been stressing that there are no "rogue" countries in the world, despite Washington's insistence to the contrary.

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