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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trans-Siberian Link Stirs North Korean Dreams

SEOUL, South Korea -- When North Korea's foreign minister flies across Russia to Moscow next week, his mind could well be on the railroad far below -- and not just because it is leader Kim Jong Il's preferred mode of transport.

Paek Nam Sun is set to arrive in Moscow on Monday and spend four days on the first such official visit in 15 years, further evidence of resurgent relations between born-again capitalist Russia and unrepentant communist North Korea.

South Korean and other analysts say those ties are built far more on economic self-interest than political allegiance these days, although North Korea is keen to show it has powerful friends while Washington is calling it part of an "axis of evil."

"It comes from the economic needs of North Korea," South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said, explaining a blitz of bilateral contacts. Those needs include revamping Soviet-era factories, energy supplies, oil refining and railroads.

Jeong told business leaders and diplomats this week that Kim -- who prefers trains to planes -- was particularly keen on harnessing the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which stretches to Europe, and linking it to South Korea's network through North Korea.

"North Korea is very much interested in taking the logistics [transit] fee from Russia," he said.

Paek was less direct in an interview with Itar-Tass, one of the very few foreign media organizations with a correspondent in Pyongyang. But the sentiment was clear.

"This huge project for carrying freight from Asia to Europe will bring significant economic benefits to all interested countries, including Russia and our country," he said.

President Vladimir Putin has homed in on the scheme as a way to help revitalize Russia's Far East.

South Korea favors the idea as a way to boost inter-Korean links, expand trade and build an image as an Asian hub.

But it has few illusions about the difficulties of piercing the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that has bisected the Korean peninsula for half a century and has kept the South a "virtual island" dependent on sea routes to markets.

"They may be insulted a bit, but we should be ready to provide them with materials to build the railroads," Jeong said, referring to a mooted new east-coast route and a railroad cut by the DMZ that the South has already rebuilt up to the border zone. The North has done next to no work on its side of the severed line.

"I have to be very honest, I don't think they have any rails to lay," he said. The North would also need mine-clearing help.

Russia's railroad is joined to North Korea's across their tiny border, but the North's system has been cut off from the South's since the 1950-53 Korean war.

Paek said he hoped the work would be carried out quickly.

That may well ring hollow to South Korean officials who found out through media with a day's notice that North Korea had pulled out of economic talks planned for Seoul last week.

There seems little chance of such an upset in Moscow.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told Itar-Tass in Moscow that the Paek visit would draw particular attention because of renewed diplomatic activity on and around the peninsula.

Leaders from Laos, China and Indonesia are among recent visitors to North Korea. A South Korean opposition politician dined with North Korea's Kim on Monday, and the United States is gearing up to renew dialogue with Pyongyang.

Paek told Itar-Tass that conditions were not yet ripe for those talks.

The North's KCNA news agency quoted the daily Rodong Sinmun as criticizing Washington for branding Pyongyang a missile exporter and developer of weapons of mass destruction.

"No one will believe the piffles let loose by the hard-line conservatives of the United States," the official newspaper said.

Close Soviet-era ties with Pyongyang cooled in the immediate post-Cold War period, but Putin set about improving them.

Kim Jong Il clocked up thousands of kilometers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad when he traveled to Moscow and back last year to reciprocate Putin's visit to Pyongyang the year before.