North Korean leader Kim Jong Il speaks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev… (Dmitry Astakhov, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Seoul and Moscow — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in remote eastern Siberia on Wednesday, reportedly to discuss such issues as a natural gas pipeline, economic aid and nuclear disarmament.
Kim, on his first trip to Russia in nearly a decade, is desperate for economic aid for his starving country, and Medvedev is seeking to bolster Russia's economic involvement in Northeast Asia.
Moscow wants to build a pipeline through the Korean peninsula to sell Siberian natural gas to North Korea, Japan and South Korea.
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," the Kremlin said.
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?"
Russian media reported that Kim and Medvedev tentatively agreed to move ahead with the pipeline, but 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.
The two leaders also reportedly discussed a plan for Russia to extend power lines into North Korea to sell electricity from facilities such as the Bureya hydroelectric plant.
Analysts across Asia have closely monitored the visit — Kim's first to Russia since 2002 — parsing the possible gains for the two nations.
North Korea has relied on China as its main trading partner since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"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.
Kim and Medvedev, in their first meeting ever, also discussed how to restart the long-stalled six-party talks on disarming Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal in return for much-needed economic aid. 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.
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 the republic of Buryatia, about 3,000 miles east of Moscow.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported that Kim was expected to start the return trip to Pyongyang directly after the meeting.
Times staff writer Glionna reported from Seoul and special correspondent Narizhnaya from Moscow. Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.