Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to South and North Korea, which is scheduled to take place on July 2-5 immediately after he attends the regional security forum in Jakarta, will come at a critical situation for the Korean peninsula.
Apart from the protracted six-party negotiations in Beijing on nuclear weapons and nuclear power in North Korea, this crucial situation has also been prompted by the pending changes in the US military presence in South Korea. A whole brigade of US servicemen will be transferred from the country to Iraq. On top of that, the withdrawal of the US contingent from the demilitarised zone, i.e., the border between South and North Korea, which has long been discussed, has now begun. The impact of these changes on the situation on the peninsula has yet to be assessed.
However, such assessments are expected to be made at an ASEAN regional forum (ARF) in Jakarta, which 24 foreign ministers from the countries of Asia and the Pacific region will attend. Security has been the main topic of ARF forums for more than ten years, but they have recently focused on the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Therefore, Sergei Lavrov, who has not yet visited Asia as Russia's foreign minister, will go to the Korean peninsula after hearing the opinions of representatives from Asia and the Pacific region on this problem. In Seoul Sergei Lavrov will discuss, among other things, the earlier postponed visit by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to Russia. The president has returned to his work after the opposition made an unsuccessful attempt to impeach him and suffered defeat in parliamentary elections. Now the president will continue his policy of rapprochement with the North and will pursue a more independent foreign policy. In particular, both Koreas have ceased the practice of criticising each other using loud speakers on the border. Instead, they are launching new economic projects, have established radio communication between their maritime vessels and are even expelling from the water zone, which has not been demarcated since the Korean War, Chinese poachers during the crab fishing season.
Sergei Lavrov will also hear about the progress of reforms in North Korea and see whether it will pursue the Vietnamese, Chinese or a purely North Korean model of development.
Accordingly, the main idea of the current two-leg visit is that the Korean policy, at least for Russia and other countries with direct interests in the region, is not limited to nuclear issues alone. This subject must not impede all the other trends of Korean policy.
In particular, the latter include the Trans-Korean railway, which is almost united, and its connection to Russia's Trans-Siberian railway, which runs to Europe. Moreover, this is not the only way that North Korea's neighbours can help it open its economy to the outside world and improve the atmosphere around this state. There are also energy issues, which constantly surface at the nuclear negotiations in Beijing and involve supplies of Russian gas or electricity to North Korea and the reconstruction of heat and power plants built by the USSR. The Beijing negotiations have shown that South Korea may not be the only country to finance these projects.
In general, the six-party negotiations, even if they are proceeding quite slowly, are producing results. After the initial paralysis of the entire Korean process for all its participants after the crisis in autumn 2002, negotiators have been able to single out the nuclear problem as a separate issue. Now it is possible to identify, in almost a civilised atmosphere, within the format of six states (the two Koreas, the US, Russia, Japan and China), whether or not North Korea has nuclear warheads and how their presence or lack thereof can be verified. All or at least most of the other issues can be discussed simultaneously.
Sergei Lavrov's visit was planned long before the end of the June round of Beijing negotiations where some unexpected progress was made through joint efforts. However, even today many things remain unclear: for example, whether the new US proposals are serious or are the most acceptable method for all the other members of the six states, who have lost patience, to delay negotiations until the US presidential elections.
Of course, the nuclear problem cannot be indefinitely isolated amidst the landscape of the Beijing residence of Diaoyutai. The concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons unites all the parties in the negotiations. Clearly, the US should give Pyongyang acceptable security guarantees sooner or later and the latter must remove all the suspicions about its military nuclear programs and continue reforms with the support of key regional powers, including, naturally, the US.
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