Russia's President Vladimir Putin has admitted that he learned about North Korea possessing a nuclear bomb as early as the early 2000s, five years before it conducted its first nuclear test. Putin made the revelation during a plenary session of the first Russian Energy Week forum in Moscow.
"In 2001, when I was on my way to pay a visit to Japan, I made a stop in North Korea, where I had a meeting with the father of the country’s current leader (Kim Jong-Un)," Putin said. "It was back then when he told me that they had a nuclear bomb. Moreover, Seoul was within the hitting range of their standard artillery systems at that time."
"When was that? In 2001!” Putin continued, lambasting attempts to pressure the North into complying with U.S. demands. “It is 2017 already, the country has been living under permanent sanctions and instead of a nuclear bomb they have now a hydrogen bomb."
"However, it was decided literally a week later to block the accounts of North Korean banks, because someone felt the obligations assumed by North Korea are not enough, that it can and should do more. But that was precisely what they agreed on,” the Russian leader added.
While North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, it refused to allow inspectors into its nuclear waste storage sites in 1993, raising suspicions of a clandestine nuclear program. In 1994, Pyongyang agreed with Washington to freeze its nuclear weapons program as a condition for moving toward the full normalization of bilateral political and economic ties. The North also agreed to mothball its graphite nuclear reactors and buy new light-water reactors while submitting to full inspections under the NPT.
By the early 2000s, the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of South Korea's then-President Kim Dae-Jung was in full swing. Introduced in 1998, it called for a slow process of confederated reunification and resulted in a blossoming of North-South relations, including large shipments of food aid to the North and a lifting of restrictions on joint business ventures. The South Korean leader, who eventually earned a Nobel Peace Prize, even urged the U.S. to lift its embargo on the North. Pyongyang had, for the first time, established official ties with various European states while holding talks with the U.S. and Japan.
By 2002, the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush named North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” alongside Iran and Iraq, alleging that Pyongyang had been “seeking weapons of mass destruction” and secretly developing nuclear weapons in violation of the 1994 agreement.
“What was the reason for provoking them? They immediately withdrew from all agreements and began developing their nuclear program. Now we have what we have," Putin said.
In early 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT before declaring it had nuclear weapons. The country conducted its first nuclear bomb test in 2006.
Despite that, the two sides held their first-ever summit in 2007, when Kim Dae-Jung's predecessor and fellow Sunshine Policy advocate Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il announced an October 4 agreement in which the two sides pledged to work together to reduce tensions and end military confrontations.
"North Korea should respect all existing agreements between the South and the North, and come forward to a path advancing peace on the Korean Peninsula," a South Korean unification ministry official told reporters in comments marking the 10-year anniversary of the agreement.
The Russian president noted that he believes he doesn't have the right to assess the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump toward the DPRK, but he urged all sides to tone down “belligerent” rhetoric and seek dialogue to resolve the ongoing crisis.
In recent weeks, Trump has taken to Twitter to mock Kim Jong-Un as the “Little Rocket Man” and threaten war while Kim has responded by calling the U.S. leader a “dotard.” On Sunday, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency published a statement shredding Trump, “the old psychopath of America,” for having “twitted such rubbish” against the country.
"Whatever it is, this is not my business to determine and assess the policy of the president of the United States but publicly I can repeat, and I already spoke about this, all the sides should tone down their belligerent rhetoric and ways must be found for a direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, between North Korea and the countries of the region," Putin said.
Last month at the Far Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, Putin raised the possibility of involving North Korea and South Korea in joint projects including the construction of new rail links and energy projects. Responding, South Korean President Moon Jae-In – a longtime advocate of reunification under a Sunshine Policy model – expressed his appreciation of Russia's support for the cause of building “a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula and improved relations between the two Korean states.”
Earlier this week, a Russian internet service provider began routing North Korean internet traffic, giving Pyongyang a crucial second connection to the world wide web beside through a China-based company. Bilateral trade also more than doubled to $US31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow said was higher oil product exports. Russia has also been accused of resisting U.S. pressure for it to repatriate tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances are a lifeline for the East Asian country.
Concluding, Putin noted the possibility and necessity to seek a balanced solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. Other policies, he added, are "dangerous and dead-end."