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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Pulls Kim Out of The Cold

With reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il set to arrive in Moscow late Friday, the world has been wondering: Why has Russia welcomed the leader of a country the West calls a rogue state with outstretched arms and traditional bread and salt? And what tempted Kim to undertake the nine-day, 6,000-kilometer train ride from his isolated nation?

Despite the nearly impenetrable buffer of secrecy surrounding the visit, one thing seems clear: Both Moscow and Pyongyang stand to benefit by helping ease North Korea out of its political and economic isolation.

"It is obvious that … for North Korea and Russia, it is important to present North Korea not as a rogue state, but as a more or less decent country," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst based in Moscow. "Then Russia can turn to the Americans and say, 'You shouldn't worry … these guys are reasonable, they won't attack you."

Improved relations with the West and with its Asian neighbors would clearly give North Korea a chance to alleviate its dismal economic situation. But Russia, too, would benefit from the rapprochement — especially between the two Koreas — both in terms of increased stability on its eastern border and by gaining access to potentially lucrative South Korean markets.

One of Moscow's main goals during Kim's visit is to win his support for the creation of a railroad link between Russia's famed Trans-Siberian line, along which Kim traveled, and the planned railway linking the two Koreas. Thereby, Russia hopes to draw part of South Korea's multibillion-dollar trade with Europe onto the Trans-Siberian.

Kim's South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung, expressed enthusiasm about the project at a February meeting with Putin in Seoul, but his northern neighbors have been more cautious.

Russian specialists are now performing technical inspections of the existing North Korean railroad, according to Russia's Railways Ministry.

Railway Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko has said the plan would slash the time to shuttle goods between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region from the 30-40 days required for sea transport to 13 to 18 days, and could drastically reduce transportation costs. He also said the route's annual capacity could be boosted from 200,000 containers to 500,000.

He lamented that of the 1 million containers hauled yearly between the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, only 5 percent traverse the Trans-Siberian.

The Russian government has been vocally supportive of the project, with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov saying the Trans-Siberian could turn into a financial resource on a par with the oil and gas sector.

Other economic interests in the area include the potential construction of gas and oil pipelines from the Kovykta field in the Irkutsk region through China and North Korea to South Korea.

At their planned meeting on Saturday, Kim and President Vladimir Putin are expected to sign a joint declaration on their nations' shared understanding of international affairs.

The document, like recent friendship treaties with China and Guinea, is likely to state both countries' strong opposition to the planned U.S. missile defense system. Sales of Russian military technology, such as tanks and air defense interceptors, are likely to be on the agenda.

On Wednesday, Kim visited a Siberian tank factory, and his Moscow itinerary for Sunday includes visits to the Khrunichev space center and mission control in Korolyov, north of Moscow.

But despite recent attempts by Moscow to defrost relationships with former allies whose aging Soviet-based arsenals are in dire need of spare parts and modernization, analyst Alexander Pikayev said Russia is not interested in a heavily armed North Korea for both political and economic reasons.

"The [Russian] military-industrial complex's main revenues come from exports," said Pikayev, who works with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Sales of military technology have fallen, by some estimates, almost five times since the end of the Soviet Union, and Russia would like to regain its position in the world market."

However, according to Pikayev, arms sales to North Korea would probably be limited to avoid upsetting South Korea, which has become an important trading partner for Russia. Furthermore, North Korea, wracked by poverty after years of economic isolation and stagnation, is unlikely to be able to pay for a large shipment of goods in hard currency.

Pikayev also said that stability on its eastern flank is a high priority for Moscow.

"The Far East is an extremely vulnerable, dynamic, fast-growing region. But the end of the Cold War did not bring an improvement to the military-political atmosphere," said Pikayev.

The 17-kilometer Russian-North Korean border lies between China and the Sea of Japan, giving the boundary — and relations on either side — particular strategic meaning.

During their talks, Putin and Kim will probably touch on North Korea's missile capabilities, which might be mentioned in their joint declaration as well.

And although, on the eve of Kim's arrival in Moscow, North Korea declared its intention to continue missile development, some observers believe Kim will try to use Putin as a mediator so that he can resume talks with the United States without losing face.

"Kim wants to reengage with the Americans, but he won't do it as a beggar," Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution told The Washington Post. "It's easier for him to do it … with Russia as the surrogate, even though the audience is Washington."

Kim's train is expected to pull into Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station late Friday. In keeping with the heavy security, the platforms will be cordoned off at a distance of several hundred meters. Suburban trains have been canceled from 6:59 p.m. to 10:44 p.m., long-distance trains from 9:18 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

The North Korean leader is expected to stay at the Kremlin, as his father did in 1984. His entourage includes about 150 Korean leaders and hundreds of gun-toting guards, both Korean and Russian.

After leaving Moscow, Kim is scheduled to travel to St. Petersburg. On the return trip, his train will stop briefly in Moscow and Novosibirsk. According to sources in Novosibirsk, Kim's agenda includes discussions on the planned extension of the Trans-Siberian with the members of the city's scientific community.

Lyuba Pronina contributed to this report