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Experts Divided on Russia-N.Korea Summit Significance - 2001-08-02

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is traveling to Moscow and is scheduled to meet Saturday with Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Kim is making his way across the broad expanse of Russia along the route of the famed Trans-Siberian railroad in his personal 21-car armored train.

North Korean officials have said it is not a fear of flying that was behind the decision to go by rail, but rather a desire to follow the same path his father took when he visited Russia in 1984.

Little has been seen of Mr. Kim during his long journey with the exception of several public appearances in the western Siberian city of Omsk.

He attended a performance of a folklore troop at a theatre in Omsk and dropped by a library to see an exhibition entitled, "Korea: Land of Morning Freshness."

The North Korean leader visited a tank factory and a bacon packing plant. Those stops may have been more to the point of visit. Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says North Korea needs both bacon and bullets, and Russia is one of Pyongyang's few shopping options. "North Korea is, of course, Russia's traditional ally and still is a major supplier of different kinds of spare parts and equipment that keeps North Korea more or less ticking," Mr. Felgenhauer says. "North Korea has a lot of Russian and Soviet hardware needs and wants as close a relationship with Russia as possible."

Analyst Felgenhauer says that cash-strapped North Korea would prefer to get as much as it can as outright gifts rather than purchases. But Russia would like North Korea to make good on the billions of dollars it owes in Soviet-era debt. Many analysts also believe Russia would like to sign a few new arms sales contracts, despite objections in the Russian press that selling arms to a country whose population is starving would be unethical.

So if arms sales are not likely and if Russia is not in a position to forgive North Korea's debts, what can be expected from the meetings?

There may be a hint in a recent statement by a Russia official that North Korea and other countries the United States refers to as "rogue states" should be included in future U.S.-Russian talks on missile defense.

However, Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, says he does not see direct inclusion in the discussions as likely. "I doubt that North Korea is ready to sit at the table with Washington," he says. "But Moscow is a more favorable partner in this context so they (North Korea) can use Moscow as a sort of intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington."

Mr. Volk says the Kim visit is most likely aimed at helping Russia build international support for its opposition to the U.S. missile defense plans. The way analyst Pavel Felgenhauer sees it, the Kremlin would like to show Washington that North Korea is not the rogue state Washington says it is. "I believe there will be some kind of conciliatory pronouncement coming from North Korea and Russia," Mr. Felgenhauer says. "And then Russia can turn to the United States and say, 'okay, these guys are reasonable, they are ready to negotiate, they're not a real ballistic missile threat at all, so why are you pushing ahead with a national missile defense?'"

Whether the Putin-Kim meeting helps or hinders Russian aims remains to be seen. As the Heritage Foundation's Yevgeny Volk suggests, such a strategy is not without risks for Russia. "Well, of course, there is a risk," Mr. Volk says. "Such contacts with rogue regimes are really dangerous for Russia's image in the West. Country's that suppress democracy and suppress economic development are not regarded in the West as civilized."

The one thing that is expected to come out of the Moscow summit is a joint declaration stating what a Kremlin spokesman termed Russia and North Korea's shared outlook on world affairs.