Report from Vladivostok

Although the article title is unnecessarily frivolous, Le Monde carries a magnificent dispatch on North Korean activities from the Russian Far Eastern port of Vladivostok:

Marie Jégo, “Lettre de Russie: Kim Jong Il, son aura, son goût du kaki [Letter from Russia: Kim Jong Il, His Aura, His Taste in Khaki],” Le Monde, June 5, 2009, (p. 28).

(Summary, not direct translation, follows.  Full French text available here.)

In Vladivostok, only 50 km from North Korean province where the nuclear test took place, the population was agitated over the North Korean action.  It recalled, for them, how a recent Korean missile launch had fallen near Nakhodka, the other big Far Eastern port for Russia.  On 27 May, a local newspaper (translated into French as Les Nouvelles de l’Extreme Orient) warned of catastrophe for North Korea.

Jego characterizes cultural and human exchanges between the two states/regions as minimal.  Although 9,000 North Korean laborers are being exploited in the Russian timber industry in the area, they are so vastly outnumbered by Chinese merchants in the Russian Far East as to be invisible.  The author contrasts the staid Russian-North Korean frontier with Russia’s active intercourse with China, holding up Suifenhe as a good example.  Russian tourists pay 5000 roubles for a day of shopping there, a city which has become “a vast temple of consumption.”

In 2001, Kim Jong Il passed through Russia on his train to Moscow to see Vladmir Putin in the Kremlin.  Accompanying him was Konstantin Poulikovski, who wrote a book about the experience entitled (again in French) A travers la Russie avec Kim Jong Il. Of Kim Jong Il, the Russian notes that he “could sense his powerful aura and his ability to direct people.”  And other Russians are close to North Korea, at least in terms of space: Reserve General Leonid Ivachov is said to regularly vacation in Pyongyang.

On 30 May, days after the nuclear test, the North Korean consul came to a conference in Vladivostok, and nakedly stated when asked that his country would continue its nuclear tests.  He also suggested that the Russian Far East could take shield under the North Korean nuclear umbrella.  These advances were rejected by the delegates, and seen as terribly arrogant coming from a “brother party.”  The local press was asked not to publish anything about the incident, and the local government indicated the ban had been respected.

Michael Terski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Vladivostok, says that North Korean nuclear tests could, in a certain fashion, be advantageous for Russia.  They strengthen Russia’s role as a mediator, but (and this appears to be Jego’s assertion rather than Terski’s) they also indicate that North Korea could be a client or customer for Russian nuclear goods.

Across from the North Korean border, Gazprom is building a gas liquification plant.

And there remains some old hard-line sentiment in Russia that resists pressures against North Korea.  Stated L’Independant in Vladivostok, “we should have no illusions: the goal of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea is to eliminate North Korea.”