Pyongyang willing to resume nuclear talks

Kim Jong-il offers moratorium on testing as the North Korean leader holds discussions with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

Kim Jong-il meets Dmitry Medvedev at a military garrison outside the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude yesterday. It was the North Korean leader's first trip to Russia since 2002. Dmitry Astakhov, RIA Novosti / AP Photo
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MOSCOW // North Korea is ready to impose a moratorium on nuclear missile tests if international talks on its nuclear programme resume, a spokeswoman for Russia's president said yesterday after talks between the two leaders at a Siberian military base.

Russian news agencies, meanwhile, reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said his country was ready to resume talks "without preconditions".

Mr Kim and the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev met yesterday at the hotel of a military garrison near the city of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, a predominantly Buddhist province near Lake Baykal. It was Mr Kim's first trip to Russia since 2002.

The six-party nuclear talks involve North Korea and the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. They have been stalled for years, but Mr Kim's Russia trip comes as his country pushes to restart them. The United States, Japan and South Korea have repeatedly called on North Korea to show sincerity in its willingness to dismantle its nuclear arms programmes by fulfilling past nuclear commitments and allowing international nuclear inspectors to return.

The Korean peninsula has seen more than a year of tension during which the North shelled a South Korean island and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship.

Mr Medvedev's spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying that Mr Kim expressed readiness to return to the talks without preconditions and "in the course of the talks, North Korea will be ready to resolve the question of imposing a moratorium on tests and production of nuclear missile weapons".

Experts on North Korea had mixed opinions on the North Korean concession.

One at the University of Sydney said North Korea's willingness to impose a moratorium on weapons of mass destruction represented "a very important step forward" that showed Mr Kim's sincerity about reopening the nuclear talks.

"The United States and its allies want demonstration of sincerity from North Korea," Leonid Petrov said, arguing that the ball was in their court now.

But he warned that North Korea may halt its conciliatory gestures if the United States failed to issue clear guarantees for Pyongyang's survival in the future.

Another expert hailed the reclusive nation's willingness to freeze its missile and nuclear tests, but noted there was no clear mention of the North's uranium enrichment programme, which can also make nuclear weapons.

"The North already has weaponised plutonium, and enriched uranium is something that can be proliferated in an easier manner," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "I think North Korea leaves the matter to talks with the United States."

On another subject, Mr Medvedev said Russia and North Korea moved forward on a proposal to ship natural gas to South Korea through a pipeline across North Korea.

North Korea had long been reluctant about the prospect of helping its industrial powerhouse arch-enemy increase its gas supply, but recently has shown interest in the project. The South wants Russian energy but is wary of North Korean influence over its energy supply.

Mr Medvedev, in televised comments, said the two countries would create a special commission to focus on "bilateral cooperation on gas transit".

He said two-thirds of the 1,100-kilometre pipeline would traverse North Korea to stream up to 10 billion cubic metres of gas a year to the South. Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, said the pipeline was likely to carry gas from the giant offshore fields near Pacific island of Sakhalin.

The two leaders also discussed restructuring North Korea's Soviet-era debt to Russia, said a Kremlin official. That debt totals about US$11 billion (Dh40m).

North Korea pledged to freeze its long-range missile tests in 1999, one year after the country shocked the world by firing a missile that flew over northern Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. However, it has since routinely tested short-range missiles and it launched a long-range rocket in April 2009.

The 2009 rocket test drew widespread international sanctions and condemnation and an angry North Korea retaliated by pulling out of the six-party nuclear talks.

North Korea is believed to have enough weaponised plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs and last November it revealed a uranium enrichment programme that can give the country a second way to make nuclear bombs.

North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and is believed to be working toward mounting a bomb on a long-range missile.

In March, the Russian deputy foreign minister Alexei Borodavkin travelled to Pyongyang and urged North Korean officials to impose a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests and to allow international monitors back into its main nuclear complex near the capital.