North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il has agreed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to return, without conditions, to the stymied six-party talks on the country's nuclear weapons program, and to consider a moratorium on WMD development as part of an agreement to build a Russian gas pipeline through his isolated Stalinist state to South Korea.
The deal, which is a potential foreign policy breakthrough for the Kremlin, came at a Siberian summit between the two leaders today, at the climax of one of Mr. Kim's rare excursions to Russia aboard his personal armored train.
The official ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Mr. Medvedev's spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, as saying that the agreement was reached amid a friendly meeting in Ulan Ude, near the shores of Siberia's Lake Baikal, which is about midway between Pyongyang and Moscow on the 10,000-km long Trans Siberian Railroad.
"[The North Koreans] confirmed their willingness to go back to the negotiations without preconditions," Ms. Timakova said according to ITAR-Tass. "In the course of the talks, North Korea will be ready to resolve the question of imposing a moratorium on tests and production of nuclear missile weapons."
In return, Russia got a conditional go-ahead for something it has long wanted: the use of North Korean territory as a transit corridor for a natural gas pipeline, and perhaps railroad connections, from Russia to the industrial powerhouse and far eastern ports of South Korea.
"As for gas cooperation, we have results. We’ve ordered our government bodies to establish a special commission to outline the details of bilateral cooperation on gas transit through the territory of North Korea and the joining of South Korea to the project," Medvedev told journalists.
Kim, who is reportedly trying to smooth the succession for his third son, Kim Jong-un, last journeyed in his armored train all the way to Moscow, for a summit with then-President Vladimir Putin, a decade ago.
Moscow has offered North Korea food and fuel aid to help get the struggling hermit state through the coming winter. But expanding economic cooperation demands substantial movement toward resolving the geopolitical challenge posed by Pyongyang's continued drive to build a long-range missile capability, and its alleged possession of a small but growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.
"Russia is becoming more assertive in the diplomatic arena as it recognizes its long-term interests," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, an independent Moscow think tank.
"It's not only about a gas pipeline, that could bring Siberian natural gas to the hub of Asia. The Trans Siberian railroad, which now ends in Vladivostok, could be extended to South Korea, making it possible to move cargoes from Asia to western Europe by rail," he says.
"It's potentially very lucrative, but the formal state of war between North and South Korea is a huge obstacle. Every war must end, and Russian diplomacy is now concentrating its mind on how to bring about such a result."
Moscow has long claimed that its Soviet-era relationships with countries like North Korea enabled it to mediate old, cold war-era conflicts more effectively than the United States, which Pyongyang views as hostile, could do.
Russia is also trying to find ways to induce North Korea to start paying back its Soviet-era debt to Moscow, which is estimated at $11 billion.
But until recently Russian efforts to engage with North Korea have produced few results.
For North Korea, which has faced repeated bouts of famine, a political thaw could improve the flow of much needed food aid, while the prospect of becoming a transit zone between the far east and Europe, via Russia, opens up vast and profitable new vistas.
"Russia understands that North Korea is a potentially unstable place, and that Kim Jong-il won't be there forever," says Mr. Konovalov. "The regime desperately needs food and fuel, and therefore is open to political engagement. Though Russia is not the main influence on North Korea – China and South Korea are more important – it sees a window of opportunity to make some gains here. It's all positive."