North Korea gives Russia cold shoulder

30 04 2009

Sunny Lee, Beijing Correspondent, The National (April 29. 2009)

lavrov_kangAs 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.

See the full text here…

Crossing Khasan-Tumangang by train

4 02 2009

khasan-tumangangIn September 2008, two railway experts from Austria and Switzerland traveled by train from Vienna to Pyongyang. It was a 13.000 kilometer-long trip, which took 13 days 8 hours and 30 minutes and involved the crossing of four national borders and two gauge-changing. The highlight of the trip was the crossing of Russian-DPRK border at Khasan-Tumangang. They traveled further along the eastern coast of North Korea from Tumangan via Kimchaek – Hamhung to Pyongyang via Tanchon and Kuum-ni.


“After the middle of the bridge we already had North Korean territory below the wheels. There were people under the bridge, they were working on some kind of field.They beckoned to us and we beckoned to them. We were surprised that they could be there just so close to the border. Finally we reached the end of the bridge, which was guarded by some soldiers. Now we had officially entered North Korea via Tumangan! “The Songun-era began”, we were joking…

…After some kilometers we passed the triangular junction at which the line to Onsong – Namyang – Hoeryong branches off. There were one or two stops untill we went to bed and it was always the same: Total darkness outside, people running around to find their wagon, other people loading stuff into the luggage-car, railway staff blowing their whistles and much “train-horning” before departure…

…Local people, who saw us at stations, were at the 1st moment quite surprised, but then usually didn’t care. When somewhere in the countryside people, who were walking or working on the fields next to the railway, saw us looking out of the passing train, unbelieving amazement was their reaction and often the told other people standing next to them, that there is something sensational to see and pointed to us…”

See the full story with pictures here:

“Although we successfully entered North Korea via Tumangan, we were later told by our travel agency via e-mail that our trip caused serious troubles at KITC (the governmental “Korean International Tourist Company”) and that they have enforced new regulations to avoid any not agreed (with KITC) entry via Tumangan in future. I can therefore – until KITC officially accepts this border point for tourists – not recommend to repeat what we did, as trying to do so might end up with another result…”

Presidential elections and the future of Russian-Korean relations

13 03 2008

Putin_KimJongIlBy Leonid Petrov

At the end of this month the inauguration of the recently elected President of the Republic of Korea will take place in Seoul. Russia is poised for its own presidential elections in early March. In North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), it has been reported, the grooming of a new leader is already under way. Nevertheless, the dynamics of relations between Russia and the two Koreas will depend not so much on personalities but on the joint efforts of the sides…

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