Putin, N. Korean leader meet

Kim seeks aid

Russia eyes trade with S. Korea

August 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - Ebulliently declaring himself "1,000 percent happy" with his Russian rail trip, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, converted a handshake with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin into a three-peck Russian kiss as the two leaders met here yesterday.

In Washington, the meeting was seen by some conservatives as the culmination of a monthlong series of Russian contacts with the countries President Bush has described as the "axis of evil." First, Moscow announced a plan to build five nuclear reactors in Iran. Then Russian officials disclosed that they planned to sign a five-year, $40 billion economic agreement with Iraq.

The Putin-Kim meeting seemed to result partly from Russia's desire for economic development, partly from its desire to chart a foreign policy independent of Washington and partly to humor an eccentric neighbor.

The North Korean leader invited himself to Russia in the spring. Putin responded by scheduling a six-day family vacation and work trip to Russia's Pacific Coast, setting aside yesterday evening for a meeting and dinner with Kim.

Rail link emphasized

Putin also met with 10 regional North Korean governors and lectured them on the need to use North Korean railroads to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway with South Korea's industrial heartland.

"If we do not link the railways here, it will be done anyway, in a different place," he said, "through the territory of our esteemed and dearly beloved neighbor, the People's Republic of China."

Russian-North Korean trade has plummeted by 80 percent in the decade since the Soviet Union's collapse, falling to $115 million last year, according to the Russian Ministry for Economic Development. About two-thirds of North Korea's trade has been with chronically depressed eastern Russia.

Moscow stands to reap billions of dollars in transit fees once North Korea opens its part of the railway and South Korean goods start pouring into Europe via Russia.

Kim arrived for yesterday's meeting with a well-known wish list for foreign aid: shipments of coal, a new nuclear power plant and the rebuilding of a Soviet-era oil refinery. But with Russia's economy having shrunk to the point that it is smaller than that of the Netherlands, Putin has moved Russia's foreign policy from aiding old allies to making money in deals with all comers.

Arms for S. Korea

With an economy 27 times the size of North Korea's, South Korea is the prize on the peninsula. Next month, Russia is to sign a deal to sell South Korea about a half-billion dollars' worth of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and assault ships. Russia is also selling China about $2 billion worth of submarines, destroyers and fighter aircraft.

In the port city of Vladivostok, a handful of North Korean flags were visible as pedestrians stood in the rain yesterday, waiting for Kim to pass in his bulletproof stretch Mercedes.

Of Russia's goals in the Far East, Andrew Fox, the British chairman of an investment firm in Vladivostok who is trying to start such a firm in North Korea, said, "It would make sense for Putin to be reasonably friendly with the countries of the so-called axis of evil. It keeps him a player on the world scene. It is a neighboring country where everybody speaks Russian."

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