All aboard! The Dear Leader departs for Russia

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il early on Tuesday launched his unofficial visit to Russia’s Pacific far east, where he may hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week.

Kim’s armoured train made a brief stop in the border station of Khasan, then went on to Russia’s far-eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where the North Korean leader is expected to tour local air force and navy factories.

The reclusive Kim could also meet Putin in the port of Vladivostok on Friday, though the Kremlin has so far declined to confirm the meeting and no official details of Kim’s visit have been revealed.

In Vladivostok, Kim is also due to visit the Far-Eastern

University, a children’s centre and one of the Russian Pacific Fleet’s ships, officials said.

Kim was accompanied by several officials, including the army chief of general staff Kim Yong Chung, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Other officials included First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok Ju and Minister of Railways Kim Yong Sam, the report said.

Relations between Russia and North Korea faltered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the former allies have signed a series of new accords to put ties back on track, at Putin’s initiative aimed at expanding Moscow’s influence in Asia.

According to the Russian president’s representative in Pacific Russia, Kim “is coming to acquaint himself with the situation in Russia’s far east, wanting to learn how economics work in the region.”

“Lately North Korea has been very interested in the Russian far east as an economic partner. This allows Russia to pursue a more aggressive and dynamic policy in developing its international ties,” Konstantin Pulikovsky said.

Pulikovsky was to accompany the North Korean leader throughout his trip, and is due to hold talks with Kim on stepping up economic ties between the region and North Korea.

With signs of major changes being made to the paralysed North Korean economy, Kim will take his rare new plunge into international diplomacy as the North engages in a series of contacts with neighbours and rivals.

Kim, who reportedly fears flying, staged an epic 24-day train trip to Moscow and back to Pyongyang last summer.

visit would focus on trade ties and a “solution to the problem between the two Koreas.

“Russia is very active on this subject, and it is working very hard on the issue of the peninsula,” the official said.

Russia’s far eastern regions are responsible for 70% of the 100-million-dollar annual trade turnout between Russia and North Korea, according to official estimates.

Up to 12 000 North Koreans make up a significant part of the region’s cheap workforce, manning construction sites, farms and timber factories.
- Sapa-AFP

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