Kim Jong Il’s Visit to Russia: Just More Mixed Messages?

Kim Jong Il visits Russia.

Kim Jong Il visits Russia.

Historical partners North Korea and Russia held a bilateral summit on August 24th for the first time in a decade. According to a Russian spokeswoman, Kim Jong Il “made known his position that North Korea is ready to return to the six party talks without preconditions, and also ready to impose a moratorium on tests of weapons of mass destruction.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after the meeting that he “had a candid and substantive conversation with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il” and was “overwhelmed with a sense of positivity.” He also estimated that prospects for a pipeline project, which is to be stretched from Russia through North Korea and down to South Korea, are highly promising after Kim Jong Il expressed his support for it.

The two leaders are more or less satisfied with the outcome out of the generally friendly, two-hour meeting. Compared to the rather discrete media coverage of Kim Jong Il’s visit to China this May, the North Korean media’s daily coverage of his visit to Russia shows how much import the meeting with Russia carried. It is said that the “special nature of the relations between North Korea and Russia” makes this difference.

Despite the promising progress both in economic cooperation and nuclear talks, it seems that North Korea’s neighbors in South Korea and Japan still hold on to their initial attitude toward North Korea’s recent gestures. Both countries have experienced first hand North Korea’s volatile behavior in the past. It seem unlikely that the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will resume unless North Korea at least shows its sincerity by implementing a tangible action that other participating countries could build trust upon.

Moreover, the pipeline project, which needs multilateral cooperation among Russia, North Korea, and South Korea, is facing challenges of its own. The substance of this project is to lay a thousand-kilometer-long pipeline through the entire Korean peninsula, enabling Russia to sell its natural gas to South Korea and even Japan. However, enthusiasm for the agreement cannot be conjured overnight, especially because South Korea did not participate in the meeting. On top of that, there are also concerns over the pipeline project in Russia. “The idea is preposterous because [Kim] has shown that he is not a reliable partner,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow. “They could steal gas, play with the pipeline any way they like,” he said of the North Koreans.

It is still too early to conclude definitively whether North Korea truly wants to sit and talk about its thorny problems or is only seeking a way to realize its ultimate goal for 2012. However, what can be clearly seen through North Korea’s recent gestures is that, according to a South Korean government official, “there was uncertainty over the situation of the Korean peninsula while Kim Jong Il visited China. Whereas, after the recent meeting between the U.S. and North Korea, the North’s major future steps have been more or less decided.”

North Korea has been sending out mixed messages to the outside world — from knocking on the door to negotiate to attacking Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. Now it seems that it is up to both those who participate in the six-party talks and the international community as a whole to make sense of the country’s intentions.

Ikhwan Kim is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.