Russia likely to seek greater influence on Koreas

In his phone conversation with President Lee Myung-bak days after being reelected Russian president on March 4, Vladimir Putin pledged to help improve inter-Korean ties and discussed a deal for Russia to pipe natural gas to South Korea through North Korea.

Putin was quoted by aides to Lee as saying he would "pay attention" to the project to build a gas pipeline passing through the three nations.

The remark reflected the Russian leader's determination to carry out the project, the aides said. They noted that it had not been discussed in consultations on the phone call with Putin, who will return to the presidency in May after serving as prime minister for four years.

Putin attended a ceremony in Vladivostok last September to open the gas pipeline from Sakhalin Island to the port city in the Russian Far East. Industrial sources here say the section of the pipeline was built in consideration of the possibility of being extended to South Korea through North Korea.

Seoul officials see Putin's interest in the pipeline deal as showcasing the aggressive approach he is expected to take once he is back as president to expand Russia's presence on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

"During his first two presidential terms in 2000-08, Putin was very active in promoting Moscow's influence in areas where its strategic interests were involved," said Ko Jae-nam, a Russia expert at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a training and research institute affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

"With all his experience and capacity, he is likely to come forward more aggressively than in his days as prime minister," Ko said.

When he took the helm of Russia at the turn of the millennium, Putin sought to balance Moscow's policy toward the peninsula, which had been tilted toward Seoul under the rule of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, and assume a mediating role in settling tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear arms and missile programs.

He visited Pyongyang in July 2000 and travelled to Seoul in February 2001. He received then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Moscow in August 2001 before they met again in Vladivostok a year later.

Putin's attempt to mediate in the standoff with the North was frustrated as Pyongyang pushed ahead with test-firing ballistic missiles and detonating nuclear devices.

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