Newsview: North Korea Uses China, Russia

The Associated Press
Friday, October 13, 2006; 3:49 PM

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea has always relied on the favors of its two great neighbors, leveraging China and Russia against each other to get what it needs to survive _ like "a shrimp crushed between whales" in a commonly cited Korean proverb.

This week, the balance may have tipped ever so slightly toward Russia, the only country to proclaim the North genuinely set off a nuclear test. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that Moscow's nuclear envoy was in Pyongyang, the first known foreign diplomat to visit North Korea since it reported the explosion.

"The older Kim used to play the Soviet Union and China off each other all the time. It's become a habit for them," said Cui Yingjiu, a retired North Korea watcher and a former classmate of Kim Jong Il in the 1960s in Pyongyang, speaking of the North's founding president, Kim Il Sung.

Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea and professor at Seoul's Kookmin University, said relations between Moscow and Pyongyang _ which gets scant actual support in tangibles such as money or aid _ can be characterized as what he calls a "broad smile" policy.

"You don't do anything of substance, but you smile as broad as you can," he said. "I don't think either side has much illusions about each other."

North Korea was created by Soviet design as a communist beachhead in Asia after World War II led to the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonial rule. For many decades, Moscow gave aid and helped the North build its industry, even laying the groundwork for the North's nuclear program.

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, the balance switched to China. Beijing gave aid and affirmation to the regime, helping it recover from a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people because of natural disasters and mismanagement _ and the loss of Soviet support.

Still, that does not mean North Korea and China are in a healthy relationship.

The North could make an attractive addition to Beijing's vast territory and offer access to sea ports. Recent studies by a state-supported Chinese institute claiming that two ancient Korean kingdoms were actually Chinese have aroused loud concern from South Korea that the work might affect future borders. South Koreans have also expressed concern that Beijing's growing economic influence in the North has made the country a de facto economic part of China.

China has been publicly critical of North Korea since Monday's announced test, using wording much harsher than its usual bland verbiage.

Russia, on the other hand, has given a cautious measure of affirmation, with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov saying Moscow had "no doubts" the test was nuclear. Moscow was reportedly informed two hours ahead of the detonation.

Since the test, Moscow has announced the delivery of aid to North Korea through the U.N. World Food Program.

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