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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow, Seoul Look to Build Roads

SEOUL, South Korea — The presidents of Russia and South Korea pledged on Tuesday to forge deeper ties, including plans to build a landmark railroad link through North Korea that both men said could help bring peace to the divided Korean peninsula.

President Vladimir Putin came to Seoul carrying Moscow's promise of support for President Kim Dae-jung's Nobel Peace Prize-winning efforts to thaw ties with the North.

He emerged with slightly vague promises for Seoul to help develop huge oil and gas fields in Siberia and the Far East.

And he also won Kim's backing for a key arms control treaty that the new U.S. administration of President George W. Bush wants to see fundamentally altered or scrapped to let it build a $60 billion missile defense shield.

Russia says the thaw on the Korean peninsula undermines Washington's justification for building the missile umbrella.

Putin began his visit by placing incense on a flame before a monument to South Koreans who died fighting the Communist North — a clear symbol of how Moscow's role has changed from Cold War patron of Pyongyang to eager trading partner of Seoul.

The visit also happened to coincide with a round of emotionally charged visits between families from the North and South, divided by the world's most heavily fortified frontier.

Korean television pictures showed weeping families meeting in Pyongyang and Seoul for the strictly organized visits, something Putin alluded to in praising Kim.

"We all saw on the screens of Korean television yesterday the meeting of families that had been divided by the geopolitical events of the last decades. I think this is a very good step," Putin said.

The proposed project to link South Korea to Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad took center stage at the talks.

Both sides touted not only the economic benefits — it would sharply reduce costs and delivery times for South Korean exports to Europe — but also the political payoff.

"Once the Korean railway is linked to the Siberian railroad, Russia, North Korea and South Korea would stand at the center of an 'iron silk road' linking the three countries to the Asia-Pacific and Eurasian regions," Kim told a joint news conference.

Putin said the plan was evidence of the "humanism" of Kim's policy toward the North, helping to create jobs and build infrastructure in a country that still has 700,000 soldiers poised on its border with the South.

"All the states in the region are included in this project. They will be more transparent, more understandable, more predictable because it will be coordinated," Putin said.

Kim and Putin also pledged to cooperate on developing Russia's vast, resource-rich east, but Putin acknowledged that economic links between the two countries have been a disappointment since they opened diplomatic ties a decade ago.

He promised to improve conditions for foreign investment by reforming tax policy, land-ownership and currency exchange rules.

"South Korea's investment in Russia has not been smooth," Putin said. "Korea had planned to carry out 126 investment projects worth $273 million, but in reality, only 91 projects worth $137 million are under way."

Kim did not speak publicly about Washington's missile defense project, but the Joint Declaration issued after the summit meeting was bound to please the Bush plan's opponents.

It described the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty as the "cornerstone of strategic stability."

The treaty forbids defenses like the one Bush wants to build, under the Cold War-era logic that such shields only encourage enemies to build more missiles.

The thaw on the Korean peninsula is one of Moscow's main arguments against the controversial treaty-busting U.S. shield.

Washington says it wants the defenses to protect itself from missiles fired by "states of concern" — it used to call them rogue states — and North Korea tops that list.

Pyongyang shocked the West in 1998 by test-firing a ballistic missile over Japan.

Washington says an updated version could hit U.S. territory by the middle of this decade, and Pyongyang could also sell its technology to other countries like Iran or Iraq.

But Russia says the best way to deal with the threat is to bring Pyongyang in from the cold.