President Vladimir Putin's whirlwind tour of North Asia, which saw him galvanize China's opposition to U.S. missile defense and meet North Korea's newly ebullient leader, Kim Jong Il, appears to guarantee Russia equal status at the Okinawa G-8 summit.
Indeed, in relation to North Korea, the general perception was that Putin's visit was aimed exclusively at boosting Russia's prestige ahead of the July 21-23 meeting.
"Of course, the visit was designed to strengthen Russia's position going into the G-7 summit," said Sergei Karaganov, a former Yeltsin policy adviser and director of the Institute of Europe, a Moscow-based research center. Putin is the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit North Korea, and traveled to the communist kingdom on the heels of the historic summit between North Korea's Kim Jong Il and South Korea's Kim Dae Jung last month.
Speaking in the Russian Far East town of Blagoveshchensk after leaving North Korea, Putin described Kim Jong Il in glowing terms.
"The leader of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] is an absolutely modern man, objectively assessing the world situation,'' Itar-TASS quoted Putin as saying. The president said common ground could be found with Kim on "any subject." Such remarks surprised many observers, as the North Korean leader has until recently been reclusive and his foreign policy erratic.
Putin's visit to North Korea just before the Okinawa G-8 Summit guarantees the Russian leader maximum attention among participants, particularly the Japanese, who have been feeling extremely vulnerable given Pyongyang's unpredictable behavior, analysts said. North Korea shocked East Asia two years ago when it test-fired a long-range missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. The missile launch has been one of the arguments used by the United States to justify construction of its National Missile Defense system.
Underlining the significance of Putin's Pyongyang visit to G-8 members, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said Friday that he was eager to meet with Putin to discuss the Russian president's North Korean summit. Putin was also scheduled to meet U.S. President Bill Clinton, who arrived Friday after a 13-hour flight.
"I think Putin will have really gained from the North Korean tour [before Okinawa]," said Valery Zaitsev, deputy director of the Institute for the International Economy and International Relations. "Japan is obviously closely monitoring the situation with North Korea's missile program and it is hosting the summit. Japan will influence the agenda to focus more heavily on an issue like North Korea that heavily concerns it."
"The G-8 leaders will be listening very attentively to Putin, given that he has just seen first hand the situation in North Korea," he added.
Earlier, in Pyongyang, Putin implied that North Korea had offered to scrap its missile program if other nations provide it with rockets to launch satellites into space. But analysts said it would be against North Korea's interest to renounce the missile program as it provides leverage for Western aid. They say Kim Jong Il was probably making a diplomatic gesture to give Putin something to show to the world.
Casting further doubt on Kim's offer, no mention of it was made in the two leaders' final communique.
"The North Korean mentality is different from that of Europeans in that the Koreans will often alter their position simply to impress," Zaitsev said. He added that any initiative would need to be carefully studied to see whether it was more than a PR move.
More broadly, Zaitsev said other than diplomatic credo, Russia had little to gain from relations with North Korea.
"The only interest we have is in the construction of the North Korean rail network for transporting South Korean freight on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would attract South Korean capital to Russia," Zaitsev said. "Last year, trade between Russia and the North was a miserable $15-20 million."
Prior to his visit to North Korea, Putin had traveled to Beijing, meeting President Jiang Zemin and shoring up the support from the world's most populous nation for Russia's efforts to persuade the U.S. to abandon its missile defense plans.
Analysts say China has much more interest in seeing missile defense scrapped than Russia, as Beijing's missile arsenal is a fraction of Moscow's. However, they said, Chinese support will also help Putin at the Okinawa Summit, where G-8 members France and Germany are also believed to have serious reservations about the American plan.
Putin and Jiang signed a joint statement denouncing U.S. plans for missile defense. The Chinese also flagged the possibility of a long-term cooperation treaty between the two countries, leading the Russian media to speak of the summit in terms of the revival of "The Great Friendship" between the two countries. "The Great Friendship" was forged between Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin when the Soviet Union provided China with huge technical support after Mao's Communist victory on mainland China in 1949.
Apart from such public expressions, the International Institute's Zaitsev said the situation with China was indeed important for Russia.
"China is developing quite quickly, while Russia's influence in Asia is in decline and the topic of Chinese challenges is seriously being discussed in [Russian] academic circles," he said. He said interest is focusing on Chinese immigration to Russia and, according to the state statistics committee, 1 million Chinese have moved to Russia in the past decade.
"But some in the Far East are putting the figure as high as 9 million," he said. "If Russia's economic situation doesn't improve, in the future, we will see serious consequences. Hence, Russia needs to create a new system of political relations to take into account the steady development of the People's Republic of China," he said.
He added that another part of that strategy should be for Russia to forge closer links to South Korea and Japan to try to counter Chinese influence. He said that could also have been part of Putin's strategy in visiting North Korea prior to the Okinawa conference to try to help foster closer ties with the Japanese.
But it was Putin's visit to North Korea that was the real headline grabber, and the Russian media played the visit as proof that North Korea did not have aggressive intentions, and as a result, the U.S had no justification for constructing a missile defense system.
The liberal Segodnya daily said the G-8 Summit provided Putin with "his last chance to convince the master of the White House to renounce the undertaking of the missile defense system."