North Korea 'ready to scrap missile programme'

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The Independent Online

In a surprise move apparently aimed at the West, North Korea announced yesterday that it was prepared to abandon its offensive missile programme in return for foreign technology.

In a surprise move apparently aimed at the West, North Korea announced yesterday that it was prepared to abandon its offensive missile programme in return for foreign technology.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, made the announcement to President Vladimir Putin during the first summit held with a Russian or Soviet leader.

Mr Putin said Mr Kim had "voiced an idea under which North Korea is even prepared to use exclusively the rocket equipment of other countries for peaceful space research if they offer it". The Russian news agency Interfax quoted Mr Putin as saying Mr Kim had assured him Pyongyang's rocket programme was peaceful.

Western leaders are less likely than the Russian leader to be impressed, however. North Korea sent shockwaves round the world in 1998 by test-firing a medium-range ballistic missile over Japan. Pyongyang said it was a space shot to launch a satellite, a claim widely dismissed abroad.

Mr Putin's main message in visiting Pyongyang was subtly directed towards Washington to suggest that North Korea should not be regarded as a "rogue state" or perhaps rather that Moscow could help to tame it. Russia, fearing a new arms race, is strongly opposed to US plans for a system of anti-ballistic defence against countries like Stalinist North Korea.

Mr Putin's visit to Pyongyang not only bolsters his own image as an international statesman, but also confirms Mr Kim's desire to open his hermit kingdom to the world, after the success of last month's unprecedented summit with his southern counterpart, Kim Dae Jung.

Yet some Pyongyang watchers expressed doubt whether Russia was likely to gain further influence on the peninsula as a result of the visit.

One western diplomat in Peking said: "The Chinese are not too concerned about Putin visiting North Korea. They know the Russians can't join the table [talks between South and North Korea, China and the US], or the Japanese would also want to be involved, and that simply won't happen."

That did not stop Russia trying to elbow its way into the peace process yesterday. Mr Putin said: "We suggest the efforts of Russia alone are not sufficient. We should all - North Korea, South Korea, as well as the US, China and Japan - support that process."

Peking is nevertheless keen for Kim Jong Il to continue what in North Korean terms amounts to a diplomatic flurry. This year his country has established diplomatic ties with Italy and Australia, and Britain too has been making overtures to the regime, most recently last month in Japan, when the Government offered the services of two English teachers.

After his talks with the Dear Leader, President Putin can go to the G8 summit in Okinawa and assure Bill Clinton that the North Korean leader is not a bogeyman, or that Russia can help to manage him. In a similar way, Russia, reluctant to lose the influence it enjoyed in Soviet times, tried to play a mediating role between the Serbs and the West over Yugoslavia.

The implied threat in President Putin's trip to Pyongyang is that if the US presses ahead with its "star wars" system in defiance of treaties signed with Moscow, Russia may become friendlier with North Korea. Russia uses its relations with China, which Mr Putin visited this week, to show that if the West does not want to cooperate, it can always look for allies in the East.

But apart from these political games, Russia has economic interests in North Korea, which may be starting to open up since Kim Dae Jung visited Pyongyang in June. If there is to be a North Korean "perestroika", Moscow, which had "brotherly relations" with the isolated state in Communist times, wishes to be involved from the start.Russia has its sights on lucrative trade with South Korea. However, it will only feel free to increase business with North Korea's old ideological enemy after it has mended fences with North Korea itself.