Russian President Vladimir Putin began a historic two-day visit to North Korea today to mend strained relations between the once-staunch ideological allies.
The visit, the first by a Russian or Soviet leader, comes on the heels of a breakthrough summit in June between leaders of the two Koreas.
Putin arrived in Pyongyang from Beijing and was met by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a report monitored in Seoul.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome Putin along his 10-mile motorcade route, it said.
In Beijing, Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin pledged to forge a “strategic partnership” in global affairs, particularly against what they see as U.S. military dominance.
Putin’s swing through Beijing and Pyongyang seemed designed to show that Russia remains an influential player in Asia despite its shaky economy.
That message should serve Putin well when he travels on to Japan for a Group of Eight summit this weekend.
In North Korea, Putin was scheduled to hold two rounds of talks with Kim, focusing on economic cooperation and the North’s missile capability.
The leaders planned to sign a declaration pledging to promote friendship between their countries, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency said in a report from North Korea.
North Korea’s Communist Party organ, Rodong Sinmun, hailed Putin’s visit as an “event important for new development of the Korean-Russian relations,” the Itar-Tass report said.
Old Allies, Together Again
The Soviet Union and North Korea were ideological allies, but relations soured after Moscow recognized pro-Western South Korea in 1990.
No Soviet or Russian leaders before Putin had visited North Korea, compared to six summit meetings so far between Russia and South Korea. Putin is expected to visit Seoul before or after a trip to Japan in early September.
In post-Soviet times, Russia, struggling with its own economic problems, has virtually neglected impoverished North Korea. In 1995, it backed away from a decades-old military alliance with the North.
Trade, which once exceeded $1 billion, stood at a mere $50 million in 1999, compared with $2.2 billion in two-way trade between Seoul and Moscow that year, South Korean officials said.
A United Front Against U.S. Missiles
High on Putin’s agenda in North Korea is Moscow’s objection to a proposed U.S. national missile defense system meant to fend off any attacks from countries like North Korea and Iraq.
North Korea is believed to have missiles capable of reaching Hawaii and Alaska. CIA reports show that the communist North has the potential to develop longer-range missiles that can reach the continental United States.
“If Putin can persuade North Korea to make gestures or express in any form its intentions to stop or not to pursue further missile developments, that would greatly strengthen his voice at the G-8 meeting,” said Chon Hong-san, a political science professor at Pusan University.
“Putin will do all he can do to persuade North Korea, because it considers the U.S. anti-missile system a direct threat to its security,” he said.
Also on Putin’s agenda is rebuilding economic ties with North Korea, many of whose major industrial plants were built with Soviet technology. Most of those plants are reportedly outdated and need renovation.
Putin is expected to offer to refurbish those idle plants with Russian experts and technology if South Korea provides financing.
North Korea Offers to Give up Rockets
Speaking on Russian public television, Putin said Kim has offered to abandon North Korea’s rocket program if other states supply him with their rockets to explore space. He attributed the proposition to the “the trusting nature of our discussions.”
According to Putin, Kim had “voiced an idea under which North Korea is even prepared to use exclusively the rocket equipment of other countries for peaceful space research if they offer it.”
Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying Kim had assured him Pyongyang’s rocket program was entirely peaceful.
Asked if Russia was prepared to offer its rockets for Korean space exploration, Putin said, “Why should only Russia pay? One should expect other countries, if they assert that the DPRK [North Korea] poses a threat for them, would support this project,” Interfax reported.
“One can minimize the threat by supplying the DPRK with its rocket boosters,” it quoted him as saying.
He also said Russia was prepared to do its utmost to improve the situation on the Korean peninsula, and expected other countries to do their part.
“We suggest that the efforts of the Russian Federation alone are not sufficient. We should all — the DPRK, South Korea, as well as the United States, China and Japan — support that process.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.