Sunny Lee, Beijing Correspondent, The National (April 29. 2009)
As the international community seeks to defuse tensions in the wake of North Korea’s recent long-range rocket launch, the tepid reception given to Russia’s foreign minister in Pyongyang last week reveals a strained relationship between the one-time allies, and is a sign of China’s strong influence, analysts said…
…“At this point, there is no leverage for Russia to exert North Korea into doing something,” said Leonid Petrov, a Russian expert on Korean affairs. “The 2006 nuclear experiment and the rocket or missile launch this year demonstrated that North Korea has no interest in listening to what Moscow [says].”
Russia’s waning influence on Pyongyang has been supplanted by the growing influence of China, which once competed with Russia for leverage in North Korea during the Cold War. Those days are long gone as China has established itself as the country’s most important ally.
That point was starkly illustrated during Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s stopover in Seoul after visiting Pyongyang. In a press conference there, the Russian diplomat debriefed the South Korean press on the results of his visit to the North, which had originally been undertaken to urge Northern leaders to resume the six-party talks on their nuclear programme. “North Korea, at the moment, doesn’t have an intention of returning to the talks,” Mr Lavrov reported.
Seoul had also hoped Moscow would play a mediating role on the contentious issue of transporting natural gas from Russia, through North Korea, to the South. Little progress seems to have been made on this point either. “I need to mention that this project is very difficult to realise,” Mr Lavrov said when asked about its status.
Pyongyang also reportedly turned down a Russian proposal to have North Korea use Russian facilities to launch a satellite in the future. Pyongyang maintains that its rocket launch last month was to test its ability to put a satellite in orbit.
To highlight the North’s disinterest in Russian overtures, and to make matters worse, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il failed to meet the Russian envoy, a protocol his father, the late leader Kim Il-sung, had maintained. When asked about this slight, Mr Lavrov said that it was not done because he “didn’t ask for it”.
South Korean media, initially holding out hope that the Russian envoy would bring a “deal proposal” from Pyongyang, did not conceal their disappointment, saying: “Unlike our expectation, he came from Pyongyang empty-handed,” said MBC, a major broadcaster.
Despite his unproductive trip, the Russian envoy surprisingly showed support for the North by exhibiting what analysts termed “undiplomatic” behaviour at a joint press conference in Seoul. After South Korean foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan described the two countries’ support for UN sanctions on the North, Mr Lavrov replied angrily, “I need to state that the sanctions are unconstructive”…
…After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the cash-strapped Russian government demanded Pyongyang pay back in hard currency its debts to Moscow, which, Mr Petrov said, “dealt a major blow in the Russo-North Korea relationship”.
Russian interest and influence in North Korea declined steadily in the 1990s, especially after Moscow established diplomatic ties with South Korea, which Pyongyang felt to be a betrayal. The relationship was salvaged somewhat in 2000, when Russia’s president at the time, Vladimir Putin, made a historic visit to North Korea, the first ever by a Russian leader.
That, however, does not mean today’s relationship between the erstwhile friends is back to the same level as during the Cold War. “The two countries used to be allies, but now they are neither friends nor foes,” said Mr Funabashi.