Russia is facing criticism after secretly offering to sell North Korea technology that could help the rogue state to protect its nuclear stockpiles and safeguard weapons secrets from international scrutiny.
Russian officials touted the equipment at an IT exhibition in Pyongyang a fortnight ago – just days before the Communist state caused international alarm by launching a salvo of short and long-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.
In what appear to have been unguarded comments, Aleksei Grigoriev, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Information Technologies Agency, told a reporter that North Korea planned to buy equipment for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear materials, developed by a Russian government-controlled defence company.
The company, Atlas, also received interest from the North Koreans in their security systems and encryption technology – which were kept from display at the exhibition for security reasons.
In remarks made to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency – hastily retracted after publication – Mr Grigoriev said that the main aim of the June 28 exhibition was “establishing contacts with the Korean side and discussing future co-operation”. Last week Russia, along with China, opposed a draft UN Security Council resolution, proposed by Japan and backed by America, that would bar missile-related financial and technology transactions with North Korea because of the missile tests.
As tensions over the missile tests mounted, the US government yesterday deployed its USS Mustin, equipped with so-called Aegis missile-tracking technology that is geared towards tracking and shooting down enemy missiles, to Yokosuka, home port to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.
On Friday, George W Bush called for the issue of the missile tests to be put before the Security Council. He said he wanted to make clear to Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, “with more than one voice” that the rest of the world condemned Wednesday’s launches.
Sources close to the proposed sale of the equipment – which would have civil and military uses – said that it was evidence of Russia’s secret support for its Soviet-era ally, which was once a bulwark against Chinese influence in the Far East. It was reported that the North Korean military interest in the exhibition stemmed from the dual purpose of many of the products and technologies on display.
After the show, which led to plans for further meetings between the Russian and North Korean delegations, Mr Grigoriev said Pyongyang’s primary interest in buying the equipment was to combat the “threat posed by international terrorism”. However, the Russian embassy in Pyongyang immediately denied the report, claiming that it was “disinformation”. Mr Grigoriev subsequently denied ever having spoken to the journalist concerned.
Disclosures of a possible deal are at odds with official Russian policy towards North Korea’s nuclear programme. On June 22, North Korea’s ambassador to Russia, Park Yi Joon, was summoned to the foreign ministry in Moscow and informed that -Russia “strongly objects to any actions that can negatively influence regional stability and worsen nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula”.
There was also some anger domestically at Russia’s opposition to the UN sanctions resolution. Although the Russian foreign ministry expressed anger that Moscow had not been notified of the launches, it went no further than issuing an anodyne statement expressing concern that the tests endangered Pacific Ocean shipping and “violated the commonly accepted world practice of giving a warning”.
Western experts were not surprised that the two countries might be discussing sensitive military deals.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, said that Russian policy towards North Korea had long been influenced by the desire to restore its Cold War-era influence.
“Russia often seems more ambitious to restore that influence than to play a positive role in international affairs,” he said. “We’ve got no reason to doubt that Moscow is playing a double game with North Korea. It’s not entirely surprising considering Vladimir Putin himself came up with the harebrained suggestion some years ago that Moscow, as a protector and provider for the North Korean regime, launch a North Korean satellite.”
Mr Eberstadt suggested that any controversial business deals would be politically costly for the Kremlin. “If Moscow wishes to be on the record as the sole defender and apologist for the world’s remaining revisionist and nuclear-proliferating regimes, then it would be interesting to see how its European friends would react.”