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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Goes to Seoul as Korean Families Meet

SEOUL, South Korea- President Vladimir Putin was on his way to Seoul Monday where groups of families from North and South Korea were reuniting as part of an historic rapprochement Moscow aims to assist.

Putin, who was due in Seoul at 10 p.m., hopes an historic easing of tensions in Korea will provide an economic bonanza for Russia -- and also undermine U.S. arguments for a missile defence shield.

As North Korea's Cold War patron, Russia has tried to play a high-profile role in diplomacy on the peninsula.

Russian railway officials have been in Seoul since last week to discuss linking the South to Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway via North Korea, a project South Korean President Kim Dae-jung calls "the iron silk road".

Hours before Putin was to set off from Moscow, an airliner carrying 100 elderly North Koreans landed in Seoul. The same jet then took a similar delegation of South Koreans to Pyongyang.

The family reunions -- the third since Kim Dae-jung's historic trip to Pyongyang last June -- will run through Wednesday, coinciding almost exactly with Putin's visit.

Two earlier tear-filled family reunions were moving events for both the North and South, where 10 million people have family ties that have been split for a half-century by the world's most heavily guarded frontier.

RAILWAYS A TANGIBLE SIGN OF THAW

The railway link through would provide South Koreans with a tangible sign of the economic benefits of a thaw, cutting the cost and delivery time of Korean exports to Europe.

Kim Dae-jung broke ground for a link between the two Koreas' railways last September at a ceremony near a rusting locomotive that sat for decades just south of the border with the North.

Russia would like to complete a spur linking the rail to the Trans-Siberian Railway, a route that would take shipments about a week to reach Moscow -- 10 days to Paris or London.

The project would also cement Russia's role as a key player in Korean relations.

"There are not only convincing economic and commercial reasons for going ahead with this project ... but, from Russia's viewpoint there are sound political reasons as well," John Barry Kotch, a political scientist at Seoul's Hanyang University, wrote in an opinion piece printed in Monday's Korea Herald.

"And if Putin can pull it off, he will gain a new leg up on the other powers with interests on the Korean peninsula, adding another notch to his diplomatic black belt."

REDUCED THREAT UNDERMINES MISSILE DEFENCE

Russia says reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula undermines one of the main arguments for a U.S. anti-missile scheme, a $60 billion project that Moscow and Beijing say will lead to a new arms race.

Washington says the purpose of the shield is to protect U.S. territory from missiles fired by "states of concern" -- what the State Department used to call "rogue states" -- and North Korea is top of that list.

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

Washington says an updated version of the North's Taepodong rocket could hit U.S. territory by the middle of this decade and Pyongyang could also sell its technology to "rogues" like Iran or Iraq.

North Korea said it was only putting a small satellite in orbit in 1998 and has apparently suggested it would be willing to forego future tests if Washington pays for future such launches.

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

It also suggests exploring "theatre-based" missile defences that could shoot down a missile leaving a small area like Korea, without covering the entire United States in an umbrella, now forbidden by arms control treaties.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met Secretary of State Colin Powell in Cairo last week for the first time, and the two agreed to continue arms control talks under a framework set up by Putin and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The new administration of President George W. Bush says it will press on with its missile defence plans whatever Moscow's view. But Russia hopes to win over U.S. allies sceptical of the Bush plans and says Washington has exaggerated the rogue threat.