Putin raises question of North Korean missiles with Kim Jong Il

SEOUL, South Korea - Vladimir Putin paid the first-ever visit by a Russian president to communist North Korea on Wednesday, meeting with leader Kim Jong Il and saying afterward that North Korea's missile program is meant for peaceful purposes.

The comment continued Putin's focus on derailing the proposed U.S. anti-missile shield: U.S. officials say the shield will protect against threats from nations like North Korea, while Putin says the shield is unnecessary.

After a two-hour summit with Kim Jong Il, Putin said North Korea offered reassurances that its missile program is for peaceful purposes, Russia's Interfax news agency said.

''North Korea is even prepared to use exclusively the missile technology of other countries, if it is offered rocket boosters for peaceful space research,'' Putin was quoted as saying.

It was not immediately clear if North Korea was stepping back from its demand for $1 billion a year from Washington in exchange for a halt to missile technology exports.

North Korea has refused to stop developing such weapons for self-defense. The North is believed to have missiles that can reach Hawaii and Alaska. The CIA says North Korea has the potential to develop longer-range missiles that could reach the continental United States.

Experts on North Korea said it was doubtful Kim and Putin discussed anything concrete regarding North Korea's missile programs.

''They're not in a position to argue that North Korea should stop missile exports or stop developing its missile program,'' said Samuel Kim, professor of political science at Columbia University's East Asian Institute.

He noted that Russia is in no position to offer the amount of economic aid that North Korea would need to make up for lost earnings from missile exports.

James Miles, an Asia analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he did not interpret Putin's statement as meaning that North Korea would halt its entire missile program because missile exports have been a significant foreign-currency earner for North Korea.

At most, he said, the statement could indicate that North Korea might give up developing the Taepo Dong, the long-range missile that North Korea test-fired over Japan in 1998.

But even if that is the case, he said, ''I can't see how this can be of any assurance to Japan and the United States.''

Putin's visit is meant to mend relations between the once-staunch ideological allies. But attention quickly fell on Moscow's objection to a U.S. national missile defense system meant to fend off any attacks from countries like North Korea and Iraq.

''Putin will do all he can do to persuade North Korea, because it considers the U.S. anti-missile system a direct threat to its security,'' said Chon Hong-san, a political science professor at Pusan University.

He noted that Putin would be going on to the summit of the leading industrial countries plus Russia, the so-called G-8, in Okinawa, Japan, starting Friday.

''If Putin can persuade North Korea to make gestures or express in any form its intentions to stop or not to pursue further missile developments, that would greatly strengthen his voice at the G-8 meeting,'' Chon said.

Putin arrived from Beijing, where he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin denounced the U.S. missile-defense shield.

Putin told Kim that a friendship treaty ratified Wednesday by the lower house of the Russian parliament would help boost relations, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said in a report from Pyongyang. Putin invited Kim Jong Il to visit Russia, it said.

Putin and Kim Jong Il signed signed a joint declaration calling for preserving and strengthening the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, Itar-Tass reported from Pyongyang. The United States is seeking to amend the ABM treaty to build its missile-defense shield.

Putin was met on his arrival in Pyongyang by Kim Jong Il, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a report monitored in Seoul.

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome Putin along his 10-mile motorcade route, the North Korean agency said. Russian TV footage showed cheering crowds lining the streets.

The North Korean agency said bands at the airport played the Russian and North Korean national anthems, followed by a 21-gun salute as Putin inspected North Korean army, navy and air force troops.

Putin visited Kumsusan memorial palace, where the embalmed body of President Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il, lies in state, the agency said.

Although the Soviet Union and North Korea were ideological allies, relations soured after Moscow recognized pro-Western South Korea in 1990.

In post-Soviet times, Russia, with its own economic problems, neglected impoverished North Korea. In 1995, it backed away from a military alliance with the North.


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