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N. Korea Said to be Ready for Talks with US, Japan - 2002-07-29

Russia's top diplomat says North Korea is prepared for unconditional talks with the United States and Japan.

After meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov says North Korea is willing to hold talks with Washington and Tokyo.

Among the issues on the table would be Washington's concerns about North Korea's missile sales and nuclear weapons program, and Pyongyang's demands for the withdrawal of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. In a statement carried by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, Mr. Ivanov says Pyongyang is willing to negotiate such issues without preconditions.

Mr. Ivanov is the first top foreign official to visit North and South Korea since the two countries had a deadly naval clash last month along their disputed maritime frontier in the Yellow Sea. He arrived in Seoul Friday, saying Russia hoped to encourage better relations on the divided peninsula.

But the Russian diplomat's message appeared to have been upstaged by North Korea late last week, when Pyongyang expressed regret for the naval clash, offered to renew talks with Seoul and suggested it would be willing to receive a visit from U.S. officials.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed Korean diplomacy high on his foreign policy agenda since taking office two-and-a-half years ago. There have been a series of summits and agreements between Russia and North Korea, which were once Cold War allies, but there has been very little follow-through.

After a summit in Pyongyang in July 2000, Mr. Putin said Mr. Kim offered to abandon the North's long-range missile program in exchange for U.S. help in launching satellites. Mr. Kim later dismissed this as a joke.

The two sides have also talked about building a railway link between the Korean peninsula and Europe, but the project has yet to get underway.

So it is not clear if Mr. Ivanov's announcement in Pyongyang will help pull North Korea out of its diplomatic isolation and ease regional and global tensions.

Some analysts suggest Mr. Ivanov's visit is primarily aimed at Russia's desire to raise its international profile.

"Russian influence in North Korea has waned in recent years, so Russia wants to regain it by increasing its status in both the North and the South," said Masao Okonogi, a Korean analyst at Tokyo's Keio University. "The North Koreans also have an agenda. I think North Korea is using Russia as a means to reach the United States and increase its own global presence."

After his North Korea visit, Mr. Ivanov will attend the ASEAN Regional Forum foreign ministers' talks in Brunei.