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(News Focus) N. Korean leader's Russian visit expected to focus on economic cooperation
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's latest trip to Russia appears to be primarily aimed at boosting economic cooperation and attracting more aid and investment from the resource-rich neighbor, experts said Saturday.

   While meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a Siberian city next week, Kim is also expected to seek Russian support in its attempt to ease diplomatic isolation and resume the stalled six-way talks on its denuclearization, they said.

   Kim's trip to Russia, his first since 2002, may be linked to North Korea's strategy of "balanced diplomacy" between Beijing and Moscow, according to the experts. The reclusive leader visited China in May, his third in just over a year.

   "Kim Jong-il's visit may be thoroughly intended to achieve his economic goals. North Korea seems to push to diversify (its relations) with Russia, as dependence on China doesn't solve its economic problems," said An Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies.

   "Kim may have felt irritated as the flow of goods and aid from Russia has been on the decline," he said.

   Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, forecast that the North's leader would conclude various economic cooperation projects with Russia during his ongoing visit.

   "North Korea may try to change its heavy diplomatic dependence on China, taking advantage of the pending issues of building a gas pipeline through the Korean Peninsula and the Russian Far East and connecting the Trans-Siberian railway," said the expert. "The North wants to alleviate the heavy burden coming from its China-oriented policy through the economic cooperation with Russia."

   The expert said the leader's latest visit to Russia may produce some practical outcome because the country is eager to revive its ailing economy ahead of 2012, the target year for building a "powerful" nation.

   Yun Deok-min, a professor at the state-funded Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said that any progress in economic cooperation between North Korea and Russia will help stabilize the volatile security situation on the Korean Peninsula.

   "A gas pipeline linking Russia with the two Koreas will be beneficial to all of the three countries," Yun said, predicting that it would help North Korea earn substantial aid from Russia.

   Analysts in Seoul also agree that the North Korean leader's trip may also be aimed at securing Russian endorsement and support for his plan to transfer power to his heir-apparent youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

   The father-to-son succession, if pushed through, would mark communism's second hereditary power transfer. Kim Jong-il inherited power from his father, the country's founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

   At the summit with Medvedev, Kim Jong-il will likely press for an early resumption of stalled six-party talks on his country's nuclear programs. Pyongyang-Moscow ties are not as close as they were but the two countries still maintain cordial relations.

   Russia is a member of the six-party denuclearization talks which also involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. The forum has been stalled since late 2008 when North Korea walked out. Renewed efforts are currently under way to reopen the forum at an early date.

   South Korea, joined by the U.S. and Japan, are calling for North Korea to show its sincerity about its pledge to denuclearize before reopening the negotiating forum.

   On the economic front, the topics of the Kim-Medvedev meeting is expected to cover Russia's push to build a pipeline through the Korean Peninsula to sell Siberia natural gas to South Korea, one of the world's largest natural gas consumers.

   If the gas pipeline project makes headway, North Korea can expect to earn more than US$500 million a year in handling charges, according to South Korean analysts.

   The North Korean leader, during the talks, is also expected to seek more aggressive Russian investment for the development of Rason, a port on the North's northeastern coast which is being developed as a special economic zone. Russia is said to have signed a long-term deal to lease part of the port.

   The North designated Rason as a special economic zone in 1991 and has since striven to develop it into a regional transportation hub, though no major progress has been made. In June, North Korea and China broke ground on a joint project to develop Rason as an economic and trade zone.

   Russia is currently working to repair a 52-kilometer-long railway linking Rason with its border city, Khasan. The railway is expected to be used to transport Russia-bound cargoes processed through Rason.

   Moscow also plans to build a container terminal at the port as soon as the railway repair work is over, according to earlier reports.

   Pyongyang may request more food aid from Russia in addition to the 50,000 tons of grain that Moscow has already promised to provide to help flood victims in the North. The country may also ask for energy aid to overcome its dire electricity shortage.