S E O U L, South Korea, July 19, 2000 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin begana historic two-day visit to North Korea today to mendstrained relations between the once-staunch ideological allies.
The visit, the first by a Russian or Soviet leader, comes on theheels of a breakthrough summit in June between leaders of the twoKoreas.
Putin arrived in Pyongyang from Beijing and was met by NorthKorean leader Kim Jong Il, the North’s official Korean Central NewsAgency said in a report monitored in Seoul.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome Putinalong his 10-mile motorcade route, it said.
In Beijing, Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin pledged toforge a “strategic partnership” in global affairs, particularlyagainst what they see as U.S. military dominance.
Putin’s swing through Beijing and Pyongyang seemed designed toshow that Russia remains an influential player in Asia despite itsshaky economy.
That message should serve Putin well when he travels on to Japanfor a Group of Eight summit this weekend.
In North Korea, Putin was scheduled to hold two rounds of talkswith Kim, focusing on economic cooperation and the North’smissile capability.
The leaders planned to sign a declaration pledging to promotefriendship between their countries, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agencysaid in a report from North Korea.
North Korea’s Communist Party organ, Rodong Sinmun, hailedPutin’s visit as an “event important for new development of theKorean-Russian relations,” the Itar-Tass report said.
Old Allies, Together Again
The Soviet Union and North Korea were ideological allies, butrelations soured after Moscow recognized pro-Western South Korea in1990.
No Soviet or Russian leaders before Putin had visited NorthKorea, compared to six summit meetings so far between Russia andSouth Korea. Putin is expected to visit Seoul before or after atrip to Japan in early September.
In post-Soviet times, Russia, struggling with its own economic problems,has virtually neglected impoverished North Korea. In 1995, itbacked away from a decades-old military alliance with the North.
Trade, which once exceeded $1 billion, stood at a mere $50million in 1999, compared with $2.2 billion in two-way tradebetween 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 aproposed U.S. national missile defense system meant to fend off any attacksfrom countries like North Korea and Iraq.
North Korea is believed to have missiles capable of reachingHawaii and Alaska. CIA reports show that the communist North hasthe potential to develop longer-range missiles that can reach the continental United States.
“If Putin can persuade North Korea to make gestures or expressin any form its intentions to stop or not to pursue further missiledevelopments, that would greatly strengthen his voice at the G-8meeting,” said Chon Hong-san, a political science professor atPusan University.
“Putin will do all he can do to persuade North Korea, becauseit considers the U.S. anti-missile system a direct threat to itssecurity,” he said.
Also on Putin’s agenda is rebuilding economic ties with NorthKorea, many of whose major industrial plants were built with Soviettechnology. Most of those plants are reportedly outdated and needrenovation.
Putin is expected to offer to refurbish those idle plants withRussian 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 otherstates supply him with their rockets to explore space. He attributed the proposition to the “the trustingnature of our discussions.”
According to Putin, Kim had “voiced an idea under which North Korea iseven prepared to use exclusively the rocket equipment of othercountries for peaceful space research if they offer it.”
Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying Kim hadassured him Pyongyang’s rocket program was entirely peaceful.
Asked if Russia was prepared to offer its rockets for Koreanspace exploration, Putin said, “Why should only Russia pay? Oneshould expect other countries, if they assert that the DPRK[North Korea] poses a threat for them, would support thisproject,” Interfax reported.
“One can minimize the threat by supplying the DPRK with itsrocket boosters,” it quoted him as saying.
He also said Russia was prepared to do its utmost to improvethe situation on the Korean peninsula, and expected othercountries to do their part.
“We suggest that the efforts of the Russian Federationalone are not sufficient. We should all — the DPRK, SouthKorea, as well as the United States, China and Japan — supportthat process.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.