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Russia Offers Use of Territory for North Korean Satellite Launches

Russia is a member of the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. It has often sided with China to prevent tough U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

The six-party talks began in August, 2003 as a forum focusing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. It brings together representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

Jim Walsh, a North Korea and nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says Pyongyang has the reactor needed to produce nuclear material.

"In order to build nuclear weapons, you need one of two materials. You need either highly-enriched uranium or plutonium - these are two different paths to the bomb. In the case of Iran, for example, the concern is that Iran will use its centrifuges to enrich uranium and use that highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program," he said. "North Korea, by contrast, has gone the re-processing route. It has this smallish research reactor - Yongbyon - and then it takes the waste product that is produced by that reactor and in that waste is plutonium. And it extracts that plutonium through a process called re-processing and then takes that plutonium to build nuclear weapons."

North Korea's nuclear ambitions continue to heighten tensions

Analysts say it is difficult to know how many nuclear weapons Pyongyang possesses - estimates vary from six to 12.

During the first several years of the six-party talks, little progress was made in curbing Pyongyang's nuclear weapons ambitions. But in 2007, an agreement was reached in which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and shut down the Yongbyon reactor. In return, the United States and others promised to help North Korea economically and the U.S. State Department took Pyongyang off the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

However toward the end of the Bush administration, negotiations ground to a halt, as North Korea refused to agree on specific verification measures of its nuclear activities.

Tensions heightened last month, April 5, when North Korea launched a long range ballistic missile. Western officials described the test as a failure, but Pyongyang called it a success, saying the rocket launched a communications satellite into orbit.

That test launch brought about international condemnation. Pyongyang reacted swiftly by saying it would conduct an underground nuclear test and begin reprocessing plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear facility. And North Korea also withdrew from the six-party talks.

Diplomats discuss Russia's role in six-party talks

Late last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to South and North Korea and confirmed that Pyongyang has no intention of returning to the six-party talks.

Many analysts say Russia's role in the talks process has been minimal, confined to threatening - along with China - to veto any United Nations resolution applying strong sanctions against Pyongyang.

"Russia has sort of sat this one out. It has participated in the talks and been there, but claims, and I think with some legitimacy, not to have a great deal of influence in North Korea, not to even understand it - explaining that the rupture with the North Koreans at the time of the collapse of Communisim in the Soviet Union simply cut off all of both their influence and a lot of their intelligence they were getting from North Korea," said David Kay, the former chief nuclear weapons inspector for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

During his trip to the region last month, Sergei Lavrov made a little-noted statement. Speaking through an interpreter, he said Moscow is willing to help Pyongyang launch satellites into space from its territory.

"Russia is cooperating with many countries in the peaceful exploration of space, including launching satellites by our boosters. We have such agreements with South Korea and we are ready to develop similar projects with North Korea, and hope our proposal will be examined," said Lavrov.

Analysts say that statement indicates Russia would like to play a more active role in resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons issue.

Paul Carroll, a nuclear weapons and North Korea expert at the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, an organization that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, says the Russian proposal could be attractive to Pyongyang for several reasons.

"One is - I could see where it would be possibly internationally observable. And it could be verified that in fact, it was a satellite and space launch attempt and not just another disguise of a missile test," said Carroll. "The other thing is it would just, I think, bring the North Koreans a little bit more into the international norms of behavior. I would hope that the Russians, if they were to offer such a carrot, sort of explicitly would impose some kind of conditions through which the launch would be monitored and transparent."

But Jim Walsh from MIT says he does not see the North Koreans allowing the Russians to send up satellites for them anytime soon.

"A satellite launch accomplishes several objectives for North Korea - part of it has to do with prestige. North Korea wants to say 'look, we did this, we're technologically advanced, we're a big deal'. But if you outsource that to the Russians, then you can't quite make those claims. So I think it's unlikely in the near term that the North Koreans are going to let the Russians do their space work for them," he said.

However Carroll and Walsh agree that the perfect forum in which to discuss the Russian proposal would be the six-party talks. But analysts say the first order of business will be to persuade the North Koreans to return to the negotiating table they left after international criticism of their long range ballistic missile test.