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Kim Jong Ill's Russian Trip Sends Message to US, Experts Say - 2001-08-08

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has begun his eastward train journey back to Pyongyang after completing a two-week tour of Russia - including a second summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

North Korea's leader departed for Russia on July 26, traveling in his personal, armor-plated, 21-carriage train. As usual, secrecy surrounded the trip - Kim Jong Il's third venture outside communist North Korea in his seven years as leader and the first to a country other than China.

Despite desperate poverty and years of famine back home, Mr. Kim insisted on traveling in style. The leader reportedly took an entourage of 150 people and his train caused massive security delays and train cancellations at every stop throughout Russia.

Political experts who have studied Mr. Kim's behavior believe the North Korean leader was attempting to send a pointed message to a long-time adversary in the grandest manner possible.

Park Soo-heon is an East Asia security expert at Kyunghee University in South Korea. "This time, I think it was a signal to the U.S. side," he said. "If the United States is not willing to negotiate with North Korea, North Korea can go to either Moscow or China. They may be saying to the U.S. side, 'Why don't you lower your position and come negotiate?'"

Soon after the Bush administration took power in January, it abruptly froze talks with the North while it reviewed the U.S. policy toward Pyongyang. The move and subsequent U.S. demands for a reduction of North Korean conventional forces along the border with South Korea as a pre-condition to the talks severely angered Pyongyang.

In recent weeks, Washington has softened its stance - assuring North Korea that talks to scrap Pyongyang's missile program in exchange for improved ties and lifting of economic sanctions could begin without an agreement on pre-conditions. But North Korea has so far refused to say whether it is interested.

Many experts believe that Kim Jong Il's trip to Russia at this time reflects a classic North Korean strategy - attempting to keep the United States, and its ally, South Korea, off balance about its real intentions while looking for future bargaining chips. Kim Sung-chull is a professor at South Korea's Institute for National Reunification. "North Korea wants to raise this kind of situation in order to liquidate the Bush administration's demand for decrease in tension, especially in the issue of conventional arms control," he said.

If Kim Jong Il was seeking backing from Moscow, analysts say he received it on several important issues.

For example, during Mr. Kim's second summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin since last July, Mr. Kim alarmed the United States and embarrassed South Korea by calling for the removal of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Last year, the North Korean leader reportedly had told South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that the troops, a legacy of the Korean War, could stay on the Korean peninsula, even after reunification.

Russian President Putin appeared to tacitly support North Korea's demands when he said that he understood Mr. Kim's position.

The two men were also united in their support of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Bush administration wants the ABM treaty scrapped or amended to allow the United States to build a missile system to defend against rogue countries like North Korea.

But analysts say Moscow is in no way being a pawn in a game dictated by North Korea. In Moscow's view, North Korea is the key to getting the United States to abandon its plans for the missile defense system, which Russia believes could lead to a new arms race that could bankrupt the cash-strapped nation.

Political analysts say President Putin has been quietly encouraging North Korean leader Kim to discontinue his country's missile program, assuming that the gesture would force the United States to compromise on the missile defense system.

Moscow's increasingly visible role in Korean peninsula affairs has also had the effect of enhancing Russia's stature as a player in post-Cold War politics.

Analysts say Mr. Putin appears determined to steadily boost Russia's presence and influence in Northeast Asia in an effort to regain the regional clout it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But most importantly for Russia, there are the economic benefits of engaging with North Korea. Mr. Park at Kyunghee University explains. "Russia is using the summit meetings for their economic improvement," he said. "Let me take one example. At the current summit, big mention was made of the plan to connect the Trans-Korean Railroad to the Trans-Siberian railroad system. If this plan is realized, Russia can get enormous benefits."

The idea is to turn Russia into an overland route for South Korean exports to Europe, which presumably would bring much-needed transit revenues to Russia and North Korea.

Last September, South Korea, eager to reunify the peninsula after 50 years of hostilities, began work on restoring its side of the Trans-Korean railroad. But Pyongyang has yet to reciprocate the work on the North Korean side. Experts say there is little doubt that Moscow has urged Pyongyang to begin the railroad project immediately.