SOSNOVY BOR, Russia (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il promised on Wednesday to consider suspending nuclear arms tests and production if international talks on Pyongyang’s atomic program resume, a Kremlin spokeswoman said.
The pledge, made at talks with President Dmitry Medvedev, was intended to improve the chances of reviving the six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks that collapsed when North Korea walked out of them in 2008.
Diplomats, however, may treat it with caution as they say Pyongyang has flouted past agreements over its nuclear weapons ambitions and is unlikely to give up efforts to build an atomic arsenal it sees as a bargaining tool with the outside world.
“Kim Jong-il expressed readiness to return to six-party talks without preconditions,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said after the president met Kim at a military base in the Siberian town of Sosnovy Bor near Lake Baikal.
“In the course of the talks the North Koreans will be ready to resolve the issue of imposing a moratorium on testing and production of missile and nuclear weaponry.”
The reclusive North Korean leader, who arrived in nearby Ulan-Ude on Tuesday in an armored train and wore a khaki military uniform, did not speak to reporters after the talks, held 4,420 km (2,750 miles) east of Moscow.
Timakova’s comments made clear North Korea wanted to discuss a moratorium only after six-nation talks resume with Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Washington and Seoul say it must agree to a moratorium before talks reconvene.
The talks are intended to provide impoverished and secretive North Korea with economic aid as an incentive for giving up its nuclear weapons program.
Moscow and Beijing have called for a quick resumption of talks. Seoul, Washington and Tokyo say they are willing to resume the talks where they left off, but that Pyongyang must first show it is serious about denuclearizing.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Kim’s reported offer was “insufficient” to warrant a resumption of the nuclear talks.
“If it’s true, a welcome first step, but far from enough,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said. “We will not go back to six-party talks until North Koreans are prepared to meet all of the commitments that we’ve all laid out.”
Medvedev said after meeting Kim that progress had been made on a long-discussed proposal to build a natural gas pipeline to South Korea that would pass through the North.
“As for gas cooperation — there are results,” he told reporters. “I understand that North Korea is interested in implementing this kind of trilateral project.”
Medvedev gave few details but said a commission was being formed to develop the proposal and a South Korean delegation had recently visited Russian natural gas company Gazprom.
The time and day of Wednesday’s meeting were not announced until the last minute although Kim, 69, had been traveling across Russia since arriving near the Pacific coast on Saturday. He traveled by train because of his fear of flying.
Kim was driven to the military base in a black Mercedes car. He had spent the previous day boating on Lake Baikal, North Korea’s state news agency said.
“Thanks to special attention and care on your part, Mr. President, we are having a happy trip,” he told Medvedev.
During Communist times, Moscow picked Kim Jong-il’s father to lead North Korea but Russian influence waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kim has left North Korea to visit China, which now has more influence on Pyongyang than Russia, three times in less than two years and has been seeking help from regional powers for his isolated nation, which is struggling with floods and economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons program.
Citing a “severe deficit” of food products, Russia said on Friday it would send 50,000 tonnes of grain to North Korea by the end of September. The North has also been seeking foreign investment to improve infrastructure.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Vicki Allen