It looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's August meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was a productive one. This week has seen the announcement of a number of modest but significant initiatives with the potential to create lasting ties between the two countries. Most important is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Gazprom and the North Korean Oil Ministry for the construction of a gas pipeline linking Russian supplies to South Korea. (Separate but coordinated discussions were held with the head of South Korea's state-run gas company as well.) Also, a rail link between a Russian border town and the North Korean port of Rajin, in the Rason special economic zone, is finally coming online as per a 2001 agreement between the two countries. And likely to garner the most attention, and having already garnered an expression of concern by the State Department, is the announcement of a joint naval search-and-rescue drill tentatively scheduled for next year.
Washington is correct to be wary of providing North Korea with economic and diplomatic lifelines, which obviously increase the North Korean leadership's ability to pursue an obstructionist approach to nuclear talks. At the same time, increased ties between Russia and North Korea serve to dilute China's monopoly of influence in Pyongyang while increasing Moscow's leverage, at a time of impending leadership transition in North Korea.
The danger for the U.S. has to do with how Russia uses that leverage. Since the reset, Moscow has shown its willingness to cooperate with Washington on key U.S. interests, but has also made it clear that it considers that cooperative relationship transactional. From the Russian perspective, the bilateral tensions from 2006-2009 resulted from Washington's refusal to reciprocate when it came to Moscow's security concerns after Moscow had made many concessions, particularly in Central Asia, in the immediate post-Sept. 11 period.