MOSCOW -- Russia is seeking closer economic ties with North Korea in an effort to develop its backward Far East and counter America's strategic shift toward Asia.
Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev traveled to Pyongyang last week, becoming the highest-ranking Russian official to visit since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father.
Trutnev, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, serves as presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District. While in North Korea, he met with Kim Yong Nam, the nominal head of state, and Premier Pak Pong Ju, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. They discussed plans for a pipeline through the country to carry Russian natural gas to South Korea and a rail corridor spanning the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russian investment in North Korean mining.
Trutnev also proposed holding a conference in Russia to promote three-way economic cooperation, an idea in which Pyongyang showed interest.
Putin's government is eager to channel investment to Russia's vast eastern expanse. It managed to achieve only about 40% of a multiyear development plan for the Far East and eastern Siberia through 2013.
By trying to increase its gravitational pull on North Korea, Russia also hopes to challenge the Obama administration's policy of greater engagement in Asia. In his meeting with Trutnev, Kim Yong Nam denounced Washington's response to the Ukrainian crisis as just another example of the U.S. meddling in other country's internal affairs.
But given the ill will Pyongyang has shown South Korean President Park Geun-hye's government, few expected quick progress on the three-way projects Moscow envisions. Some doubt Russia's sway over its unpredictable neighbor. Russia lacks the influence to stop North Korea from conducting a fourth nuclear test, a European diplomatic source says.