TOKYO — In a rare foreign visit confirmed by Pyongyang’s state-run media, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il arrived Saturday via armored train in Russia, where he is to discuss economic projects and meet with President Dmitry Medvedev.
A Kremlin statement described the meeting between the leaders as the “main event” during Kim’s trip to the Far East and Siberian regions. The trip comes at a time when the Stalinist dictatorship is pushing for aid and facing international pressure to resume nuclear talks, suspended since early 2009.
Kim’s train passed into Russia on Saturday morning near the border town of Khasan. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing a government source in Seoul, said that Kim would meet with Medvedev on Tuesday in Ulan Ude, a Siberian town several hundred miles northwest of Vladivostok.
Kim, who has a fear of flying, has twice visited Russia since coming to power, traveling exclusively by train. In his 2002 visit, he held talks with then-President Vladimir Putin.
Kim’s more recent travel has taken place exclusively to China, with three trips there since May 2003.
Kim’s trip, Pyongyang said, came at the invitation of Medvedev, whose government in recent weeks has pushed North Korea to cooperate on plans to connect a railway and a gas pipeline that would run from Russia through the divided Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has remained largely a no-go zone for massive foreign projects, with outside economic investment allowed only in special development zones. But if North Korea goes along with the gas pipeline project — in which Russian exporter Gazprom will annually send 10 billion cubic meters of gas to South Korea for three decades — it stands to collect handling fees. It would also allow the North a measure of influence in Seoul’s economy.
One major South Korean newspaper, the JoongAng Daily, in an editorial Saturday described North Korea’s apparent support for the plan as “a calculation to add to its increasing portfolio of potential hostage issues for times when inter-Korean relations chill.”
In recent years, North Korea has grown increasingly dependent on China, its primary benefactor and supporter in international disputes. The country’s relationship with Russia chilled after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, and the ensuing falloff in trade pushed North Korea to the brink of economic breakdown, with up to a million people dying in a famine.
Some North Korea analysts say that Kim has grown wary of depending so heavily on China, particularly as North Korea prepares for the 100th anniversary next year of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung. The North has promised to build a strong and prosperous economy to mark the occasion, but such a display is largely at the mercy of foreign aid.
“North Korea has had no choice but to deepen its dependence on China, so they now need some counterbalance,” said Yun Duk-min, a professor at Seoul’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “Kim Jong Il uses such tactics. This is using Russia to check Chinese influence.”
Kim’s trip follows several months of Russia-North Korea diplomacy. In May, foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov held talks with Kim in Pyongyang, reportedly focused on economic projects and humanitarian assistance, with Russia agreeing to send 50,000 tons of food aid.
On Aug. 15, North Korea’s state-run news agency published a letter from Medvedev in which he described the “solidarity of the friendship” between the countries and asked for joint economic cooperation.
“We have willingness to boost cooperation with the DPRK in all directions of mutual concern,” the letter said, “including a three-party plan encompassing Russia, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea in the fields of gasification, energy and railway construction.”
In a letter of response, Kim said that “relations between the DPRK and the Russian Federation will develop in line with the common interests and desire of the peoples of the two countries.”