LONDON — Russia secretly offered to sell North Korea technology that could help the rogue state protect nuclear stockpiles and safeguard weapons secrets from international scrutiny, but officials backed off after the arms flirtation was publicized.
Russian officials touted the equipment to the communist regime at an information technology exhibition in Pyongyang late last month — just days before North Korea sparked international alarm by launching a salvo of short- and long-range missiles into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
Aleksei Grigoriev, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Information Technologies Agency, told a reporter for the Itar-Tass news agency that North Korea planned to buy equipment for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear materials.
One of Russia’s state-controlled defense companies developed the equipment. The company, Atlas, also drew interest from the North Koreans in security systems and encryption technology, neither of which were on display at the exhibition for security reasons.
Word of secret Russian dealings with North Korea’s nuclear program presents a potential obstacle to Bush administration plans to share civilian nuclear technology with Moscow. The Washington Post reported yesterday that President Bush intends to announce extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia in a deal that could be worth billions of dollars.
“Such an agreement would benefit both the United States and Russia and indeed the world by enabling advances in and greater use of nuclear energy,” White House spokesman Peter Watkins told Reuters news agency in confirming the report.
Mr. Grigoriev told Itar-Tass that the main purpose of the June 28 exhibition in Pyongyang was “establishing contacts with the Korean side and discussing future cooperation.” He quickly retracted his remarks after they became public.
Russia along with China last week opposed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution, proposed by Japan and backed by the United States, that would bar missile-related financial and technology transactions with North Korea because of the Fourth of July missile launches.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill yesterday expressed support for a Chinese proposal to hold informal six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear threat and offered to meet bilaterally with the North on the sidelines, the Associated Press reported from Seoul.
“As many of you know, the Chinese have talked about putting together a six-party informal, and we both support that and we think that all countries are prepared to come to that informal meeting,” Mr. Hill told reporters after meeting with Chun Young-woo, South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator.
Asked about the possibility of a bilateral meeting with the North, he said: “Within the informal six-party talks, yes, I can. I just can’t do it when they are boycotting the six-party talks.”
The talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
Mr. Hill was in Seoul as part of a regional tour to coordinate the international response to the North’s missile launches.
The USS Mustin, an ultramodern destroyer equipped with Aegis missile-tracking technology for tracking and shooting down enemy missiles, docked yesterday at Yokosuka, Japan, home port to the Navy’s 7th Fleet. Arrival of the high-tech destroyer had been planned for months, a Navy spokesman said, and was not a direct U.S. reaction to North Korea’s missile tests.
Sources close to the proposed sale of Russian equipment to the North for civil and military uses said it was evidence of Russia’s secret support for its Soviet-era ally, once a bulwark against Chinese influence in the Far East.
North Korean military interest in the exhibition reportedly 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, saying it was “disinformation.” Mr. Grigoriev subsequently denied having spoken to the Itar-Tass reporter.
Disclosures of a possible deal are at odds with official Russian policy toward North Korea’s nuclear program. 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 [the] nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.”
Western analysts said they would not be surprised if the two countries are discussing sensitive military deals. Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, said Russian policy toward North Korea long has 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,” Mr. Eberstadt said. “We’ve got no reason to doubt that Moscow is playing a double game with North Korea.”
A special correspondent in Pyongyang contributed to this report.