Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il traveled to Russia for the first time in nearly a decade, holding rare talks Wednesday with President Dmitry Medvedev that made progress on such issues as an energy deal and nuclear disarmament, according to Russian media reports.
Meeting in remote eastern Siberia, the two leaders brought varying agendas, experts say: Kim is desperate for economic aid for his starving country while Medvedev seeks to bolster Russia’s role in northeast Asia and promote its rapidly expanding economy.
The 70-year-old Kim rarely travels outside North Korea out of concern for his safety. He left Pyongyang on Saturday, his special armored train chugging across eastern Russia to arrive at the site of Wednesday’s talks at Medvedev’s second residence near Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, a far-flung provincial outpost 3,000 miles east of Moscow.
After Kim’s arrival at the local station, where the windows were covered with paper to discourage the curious, the North Korean leader left for the talks inside a black armored Mercedes limousine.
After visiting a local supermarket and bowing to a statue of Lenin, Kim met Medvedev. Wearing his signature khaki leisure suit, he thanked the Russian leader for flying in for the two-hour meeting.
“When it comes to meetings with our partners, it’s not that far,” Medvedev reportedly said.
“Thanks to your special attention and care, Mr. President,” Kim replied through a translator. “We’re having a fun trip.”
Many have cast Kim as an unlikely frontline negotiator on a Russian economic plan that involves South Korea, which for decades has been at military odds with the north. Moscow wants to build a pipeline through the entire Korean Peninsula to sell Siberian natural gas to the north, Japan and South Korea, one of the world’s largest buyers of natural gas.
In a statement released before the meeting, the Kremlin said the pipeline project was critical. “One of the pressing themes on the agenda will be prospects for launching tripartite economic projects with the participation of Russia, South Korea and North Korea.”
After years of reluctance, Kim recently displayed interest in the project, which South Korean officials have also supported. A Seoul newspaper on Wednesday carried the headline: ‘Kim Jong-il of the North: will he be the middleman between Korea, Russia and Japan?”
While Russian media reported that Kim and Medvedev tentatively agreed to move ahead with the pipeline, analysts expressed doubts over any deal with the authoritarian regime.
“The idea is preposterous because [Kim] has shown that he is not a reliable partner,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow. “They could steal gas, play with the pipeline any way they like,” he said of the North Koreans.
Medvedev ordered a commission to evaluate the parameters of laying a gas pipe through North Korea, according to the president’s statement posted on the Kremlin website. The pipe would stretch for more than 1,100 km, 700 of which would run through North Korea and would pump 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually.
The two leaders also discussed a plan for Russia to extend power lines into North Korea to sell electricity from facilities like the Bureya hydroelectric plant. Before arriving to meet Medvedev, Kim visited the Bureya plant, where he swam in a pool filled with water from Lake Baikal. Afterward, the North Korean strongman was treated to such local cuisine as meat dumplings and fish prepared over an open fire, press reports said.
Analysts across Asia ? including China ? have closely monitored Kim’s first visit to Russia since 2002, parsing the possible gains for the two nations. The talks represented the first meeting ever between Kim and Medvedev.
North Korea has relied on China as its main trading partner since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One Chinese military officer said Kim’s trip was intended to demonstrate that Pyongyang refuses to remain isolated.
“Through his visit to Russia, Kim is proclaiming that despite the [West’s] strategy to isolate North Korea, the nation is not alone in the world,” Yin Zhuo, a rear admiral in the Chinese army told state-run television.
The two leaders also discussed how to restart the long-stalled six-party talks on disarming Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal in return for much-needed economic aid to Kim regime. Russian media reported Wednesday that Kim agreed to return to the bargaining table “without conditions.”
North Korea has recently shown a willingness to restart the talks, which it vacated in 2009. In July, Pyongyang diplomats met separately with officials in Washington and Seoul to discuss ways to resume the talks, which involve the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S.
Russia’s Itar Tass news agency reported that Kim was expected to start the return trip to Pyongyang directly after the meeting.
Glionna reported from Seoul. Narizhnaya, a Russia-based freelance writer, reported from Moscow. Jung-yoon Choi, a Times news assistant, also contributed to this story.