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August 21, 2011

North Korean Leader, Russian President to Meet in Siberia

by Steve Herman

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is in Russia. It is his first visit to the neighboring country in nearly a decade. Kim is traveling by armored train through Russia’s frontier region on what is expected to be a week-long journey.

Pyongyang’s state media is giving unusually timely reports about what it calls the “unofficial visit” to Russia. The North Korean leader’s travels are usually not announced until he has returned home.

So far, the Russian visit has included Kim inspecting a hydroelectric plant on Sunday.

Kim Jong Il is expected to meet this week with Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev. Reports say the summit is to take place in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, near Lake Baikal.

It is speculated that among the items to be discussed by the two leaders is a plan for a pipeline through the divided Korean peninsula that would allow Russia to sell Siberian natural gas to South Korea.

Analysts say North Korea may be inclined to allow the project to pass through its territory as it could stand to gain as much as a half billion dollars per year from handling charges.

Tong Kim, a research professor at Korea University, says this visit reveals a number of things, including that the North Korean leader is eager to demonstrate he has recovered from the stroke he apparently suffered in 2008.

Kim says the visit also indicates that North Korea is becoming more open about its diplomatic moves, which it traditionally keeps in the dark.

Most of that diplomacy has taken place with China, the neighbor on which North Korea’s economy has been heavily dependent in the face of international sanctions led by the United States.

Those sanctions stem from North Korea’s two nuclear weapons tests. The communist state has also faced international condemnation for proliferation of ballistic missile technology.

North Korea may also be hoping to seal deals on gas, electricity and railway projects with Russia, as well as secure badly-need food aid.

A South Korean presidential spokesman calls Kim's trip a positive move as it could improve the reclusive and impoverished state’s economic development.

South Korean officials say Seoul and Moscow are closely cooperating regarding Kim’s visit to Russia.