MOSCOW (AP) — North Korea is ready to impose a moratorium on nuclear missile tests if international talks on its nuclear program resume, a spokesman for Russia's president said Wednesday 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 is ready to resume talks "without preconditions."
Kim and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Wednesday at the hotel of a military garrison near the city of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, a predominantly Buddhist province near Lake Baikal. It was Kim's first trip to Russia since 2002.
The six-sided nuclear talks involving North Korea and the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have been stalled since December 2008. But faced with deepening sanctions and economic trouble, North Korea is pushing to restart them. The United States and South Korea maintain the North must halt its nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, before the talks reopen.
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.
Medvedev spokeswoman Natalya Timakova was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying that 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 were of mixed minds 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 represents "a very important step forward" that shows Kim's sincerity about reopening the nuclear talks.
"The United States and its allies want a demonstration of sincerity from North Korea," Leonid Petrov told The Associated Press, arguing that the "ball" is in their court now.
But he warned that North Korea may halt its conciliatory gestures if the United States fails 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 program, which can also make nuclear weapons.
"The North already has weaponized 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, 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 archenemy 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.
Medvedev, in televised comments, said the two countries will create a special commission to focus on "bilateral cooperation on gas transit."
He said two-thirds of the 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) pipeline would traverse North Korea to stream up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to the South. Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, said the pipeline is likely to carry gas from the giant offshore fields near the Pacific island of Sakhalin.
The two leaders also discussed restructuring North Korea's Soviet-era debt to Russia, said a Kremlin official, speaking on condition of anonymity. That debt totals about $11 billion, according to a top Russian official.
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 weaponized plutonium for at least six atomic bombs and last November it revealed a uranium enrichment program that can give the country a second way to make atomic 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, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin traveled 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.
Kim was expected to return to North Korea following his meeting with Medvedev, traveling in the armored, blast-proof train he customarily uses for trips abroad. But Kim's special train was seen heading toward eastern Siberia instead of Mongolia later Wednesday, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
The itinerary for Kim's visit has been largely kept secret due to security worries. Some photos of Kim emerged during his visit Sunday to a Russian hydroelectric plant — whose power lines might be extended to North Korea — but heavy police cordons have kept the media and onlookers in Ulan-Ude away from the train station.
Kim also reportedly visited a major aircraft factory that produces the Sukhoi attack planes and the town of Skovorodino, the starting point for an oil pipeline that links eastern Siberian oil fields to China.
Kim also toured Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and oldest lake, where he took a two-hour cruise on a yacht guarded by two North Korean boats. On shore, he was treated to traditional local food, including meat dumplings and Baikal fish prepared over an open fire.
Before the meeting with Medvedev, Kim visited the statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin in downtown Ulan-Ude and dropped by a local supermarket, Russia's Vesti television reported.
Medvedev greeted Kim, who stepped out of an armored Mercedes limousine saying he was "having a fun trip." Kim looked frail as he limped to a chair in a meeting hall — a possible consequence of a stroke he reportedly had in 2008.
Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.