WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- A Russian expert on North Korea said Thursday that Moscow supports inter-Korea rapprochement – but would find a U.S. military presence or missile defense system "absolutely unacceptable" in a unified Korea that borders Russia and China.
In a panel co-hosted by the Global Peace Foundation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Alexander Zhebin of the Russian Academy of Sciences said Russia is interested in improved inter-Korea relations that will open up new economic opportunities for the Russian Far East.
Zhebin cited the Hasan-Rajin railway as an example of a project between Moscow and Pyongyang that could bring benefits to all participants, including South Korea.
The railway is a connectivity project that is part of a pilot program involving North Korea, South Korea and Russia. Russian coal has been transported from the North Korean port of Rajin to South Korea by ship in a three-way logistics project that could provide a model for future economic cooperation.
Yonhap reported the first shipment, 40,500 tons of Russian coal arrived in South Korea last November through the Hasan-Rajin railway. In April, South Korean newspaper Asia Business reported another 47,000 tons of Russian coal arrived in South Korea from the North Korean port of Rajin.
But Zhebin said economic development in North Korea does not guarantee a change in the political leadership.
"Too many experts believe united Korea will develop to democracy and market economy rules," Zhebin said.
"[But] a market economy does not necessarily lead to change of the ruling elite," he said, referring to Communist party rule in former socialist countries like China and Vietnam.
Zhebin also said that as long as the U.S.-South Korea-Japan security triangle is in place, and under the umbrella of a missile defense system, the alliance will continue to raise the suspicions of Russia and China.
Gilbert Rozman, a Northeast Asia specialist at Princeton University, said the Russian approach to North Korea contrasts deeply with the U.S. focus on denuclearization.
"Russia's point of view is...to help [North Korea] economic development and trust them to become a responsible state," Rozman said.
"It's really the opposite approach [of the United States]. [Russia's] approach says if South Korea wants progress, it's got to abandon the alliance with the United States...and a regional security structure is the solution."