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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pyongyang Reaffirms Missile Swap Proposal

In a confidential exchange of letters, North Korea has reaffirmed to Russia that it will drop its intercontinental ballistic missile program, if other countries will launch two or three satellites a year for Pyongyang at their expense, well-informed sources said.

The letters were exchanged between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in the wake of Putin's July 19 visit to Pyongyang, where he first received the missile offer. Putin passed along what he had been told then, but questions arose in the West about the exact meaning of what the North Koreans were proposing.

The threat of North Korean missile launches is one of the major reasons the United States is considering a limited national missile defense system. A decision on whether to begin construction is to be made later this year by President Bill Clinton or next year by his successor. If the North Korean threat is diminished f or could be abated with a relatively small investment in satellite launches f this could have a significant impact on the debate in Washington on the issue.

Putin first described the North Korean proposal to leaders of the major industrial democracies at the Okinawa summit July 21-23. But U.S. and other officials said then there were many uncertainties, such as whether North Korea wanted to import the rocket technology or would be satisfied with launches outside its borders.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov explained at the summit that North Korea is open to suggestions on that issue, but his statement attracted little attention and doubts persisted. The letters described Thursday, with their demand that the launches be paid for by countries with concerns over the missiles, strongly suggest Pyongyang envisages that the launches indeed would be outside North Korea.

Russia has repeatedly argued that the United States has overstated the threat from North Korea and it would be cheaper to use diplomacy than to build the missile shield. Alexander Mansurov, a visiting fellow at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said the offer, and now the clarifications, were an important diplomatic breakthrough for Russia, improving chances of playing an intermediary role as the secretive government in Pyongyang begins to look outward.

The request to have other countries pay for satellite launches was not directed at Russia, Mansurov said, adding: "It is an idea for the United States to consider."

Well-informed sources in Moscow said the letter to Putin reiterates that North Korea would abandon its intercontinental ballistic missile program in exchange for the help with satellite launches, which Pyongyang says are for peaceful purposes. Going a step further than what was previously disclosed, the North Koreans also asked the "concerned countries" f those that have criticized its missile program f to pay for the two or three satellite launches a year Pyongyang is requesting, the sources said.

The suggestion seems to be patterned on an earlier agreement in which North Korea agreed to shut down a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, which the West feared could produce nuclear weapons materials, in exchange for two 1,000-megawatt light-water reactors from a consortium of the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Asked Thursday about the exchange of letters with North Korea, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Alexander Yakovenko, had no comment.

Mansurov said Pyongyang seems to be proposing to repeat the pattern of the nuclear reactor deal with the missile program. He noted that North Korea is not offering to curtail shorter-range missiles, only the continent-spanning ones.

Mansurov said the North Korean offer to curtail the missile program came as a surprise last month to the visiting Russian delegation. At first, Putin inquired about Pyongyang's intentions only in general terms. When the offer was made, Putin suggested to Kim that they make a joint statement, but was told he could make the announcement on his own, Mansurov said.