Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov will begin his annual Asian tour next Friday by visiting two Korean capitals -- Seoul of South Korea and Pyongyang of North Korea.
The discussion of the Korean issue will also be continued at Asia's main international forum in Brunei -- the final point of the Russian minister's tour. The reference is to a regional forum which is scheduled immediately after a conference of Association of South East Asia Nations foreign ministers.
The Korean subject is unlikely to be the central one at this ASEAN regional forum, which will in effect outline the contours of all Asian policy in the new era. But in this policy, however, Korea still plays an important role. The gist of the Korean problem is that the George W. Bush administration has still not unfrozen a dialogue with North Korea, which was about to start with his predecessor and whose aim was to deisolate that country. By doing so the US, on the one hand, is creating a lever to exert pressure on all Asian politics and, on the other, is losing popularity in Asia.
Seen in these terms, there is incidentally a lot in common between the Korean and Middle East policy of Washington. A recent meeting of the Middle East four in the US, it will be recalled, showed that Washington's rather similar course towards Palestine or Iraq is bringing divisions in US relations with the European Union, Russia and even the UN leadership.
In the Far East we see the same kind of picture: transformation of North Korea into a sort of "second Iraq" is disliked by South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and ASEAN countries.
In such cases, as if casually, both in the Middle and the Far East, provocations follow so convenient for further delaying any negotiations. Thus, a naval engagement between ships of the two Korean states in the Yellow Sea on June 29 proved to be a very "timely" excuse for the US to withhold from sending a Department of State delegation to Pyongyang.
The question arises: why did George W. Bush need, from the start of his activity, to freeze talks with Pyongyang and in January 2002 to say that North Korea is part of the "axis of evil" and "a regime equipped with missiles and weapons of mass destruction and starving its citizens"?
According to one of the explanations of such a policy, Washington understands that alone it has little chance to attain its aims with regard to North Korea, whatever they may be.
So American diplomats would like to align in Asia a coalition of countries that would guarantee "punishment" for North Korea if it continues to be recalcitrant, which implies a true revolution in all Asian politics.
And of course it can be started with South Korea by helping the opposition Grand National Party and its leader Lee Hoi Chang who is believed to be closer to the Republicans than Kim Dae-jung with his "sunshine" policy. If prior to presidential elections the Korean peninsula remains a powder keg and the incumbent president's party loses in popularity, this will also contribute to a victory of the South Korean opposition.
This is how a win in this game looks for the US. The others will rather lose. Naturally, Moscow would not like to lose the gains it acquired in the two last years of the new Korean policy. This policy of equidistance from Seoul and Pyongyang, which corrected the previous "southern bias" of Russian diplomacy, is so far regularly winning friends throughout the region.
Moscow, while maintaining working relations with Kim Jong-il, has proved to be necessary to all. Telephone calls to the Russian capital come from Japanese leaders who cannot pursue a proper dialogue with the North; and advice is constantly sought, although not acted on, by Americans.
What is more, with the "new Korean policy" launched, immediate fruits were borne by relations with Seoul. All this allows Moscow to prepare for the future good economic positions throughout the peninsula by discussing numerous transport, energy and also many other projects.
One can hardly expect Ivanov's trip to the two Koreas and his multilateral or bilateral negotiations on this issue in Brunei of itself leading to any "breakthrough" on the Korean peninsula in general. Still, not only Russia, but also practically all countries represented at the forum /China, both Koreas, Australia and New Zealand, Japan and so on/ will not want to wait for December elections in South Korea to launch an inter-Korean dialogue from zero.
In any case, the Korean problem will have a very great impact on what the new Asian political landscape will be in the next few years.