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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yakovlev the Envoy Drops In On Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea -- St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev briefed South Korea on Wednesday on his high-profile talks in North Korea, in the latest example of Russia's resurgent role in diplomacy on the divided peninsula.

Yakovlev was to meet with Prime Minister Lee Han-dong, a deputy foreign minister and presidential envoy Lim Dong-won, who visited the North this month to rekindle North-South links.

South Korean officials were uncharacteristically coy on the details of the talks with Yakovlev. The governor was not available for comment ahead of a news conference Thursday.

"It's sensitive timing," said one South Korean official.

Yakovlev visited North Korea as the communist country marked the 90th birth anniversary of late state founder Kim Il Sung with concerts, seminars and gushing, if obscure, foreign tributes.

North Korea's KCNA news agency said leader Kim Jong Il met Yakovlev, received a letter from Putin and hosted a dinner for the governor Monday -- the anniversary and what KCNA described as "the Day of the Sun, the greatest holiday of the nation."

"What Kim Jong Il is trying to do with this particular visit is to send a very strong signal that he understands what Putin is trying to do vis-a-vis the Korean peninsula," said Lee Chung-min, an international relations expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "By siding with Moscow at this particular time it gives him political cache."

Putin has often said he sees Russia's future primarily as part of Europe, but he has also carefully shored up relations with China and particularly North Korea.

President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang in 2000 and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il trundled across Russia by train to Moscow last year on one of his few trips outside of his communist state. The two leaders signed a pact on boosting relations, and KCNA quoted Yakovlev telling reporters his visit was "clear proof of that."

"It's not all that hard to figure out why the North ... is enamored with Moscow," North Korea expert Brent Choi wrote in a recent paper for the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS think tank. "North Korea badly needs some kind of shield against U.S. pressure, which has continued to grow since Sept. 11."

With the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that has divided Korea for 50 years still in place, Moscow seems to be positioning itself for the long haul and any eventual changes.

"All the old networks are basically dead," Lee said. "From Putin's perspective he is able to say, look, we are able to build this personal linkage with Kim Jong Il that will pay off at some point in the future."