VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in Russia on Saturday for his first visit in nearly a decade as the isolated state sought economic aid after heavy flooding exacerbated its chronic food shortages.
Kim will meet President Dmitry Medvedev and will spend time in the Far East and Siberia, the Kremlin said in a statement. The meeting is expected to take place around mid-week.
Russia and North Korea were once politically close, but relations cooled and trade fell sharply after the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991.
Kim arrived in the town of Khasan, near the short border between North Korea and Russia, on a train and was greeted by the Primorye region governor and Medvedev's representative in the Russian Far East, a regional government source said.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing a South Korean government source, said Kim was expected to stay in Russia for a week and would probably hold talks with Medvedev in Ulan-Ude, 2,050 km (1,275 miles) further west near Lake Baikal in Siberia.
The local edition of the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in Ulan-Ude said Kim's train was likely to arrive there on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The brief Kremlin statement confirmed Kim was arriving on Saturday and said he would spend time in the Far East and Siberia. "The main event of the visit will be President Dmitry Medvedev's meeting with Kim Jong-il," it said.
It did not say when or where the meeting would take place.
Russia is a member of the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, though China now holds more influence with North Korea than Russia does.
North Korea has been desperate for economic aid after suffering from floods and economic sanctions led by the United States because of its nuclear program.
VISIT FOLLOWS NUCLEAR TALKS
Citing a "severe deficit" of food products in North Korea, Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Russia would send 50,000 tonnes of grain to North Korea by the end of September. It said the first shipment was made on Friday.
The United States has offered North Korea up to $900,000 in emergency flood assistance but has made no decision yet on a broader request for humanitarian food aid for the isolated country, the State Department said on Thursday.
Kim made his last public visit to Russia in 2002, when he met then-President Vladimir Putin in the far eastern city of Vladivostok. He has visited China, Pyongyang's closest big-power ally, three times in just over a year.
The visit follows a series of top-level meetings between Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington and Beijing that has raised hopes of a resumption of long-stalled talks on disabling the secretive North's nuclear weapons program.
Russia and Japan are also parties to the talks.
Russia has expressed concern about North Korea missile tests and urged it to abide by commitments on its nuclear program, but has warned South Korea and the United States against acting too aggressively with the North.
Russian authorities in Vladivostok, 130 km (80 miles) from the North Korean border, had been making preparations for a possible visit by Kim in June, according to a local official.
He never arrived, and the newspaper Kommersant reported that he had canceled the visit because of worries about security following media reports that he was coming.
In 2001, Kim traveled over 7,000 km (4,500 miles) to Moscow by train for talks with Putin, who is now prime minister and is considering a return to the presidency in a vote next March.
Western reports suggest Kim was born at an army camp in the Soviet Union where his father was a key figure among Korean communist exiles receiving training. The North says Kim was born in a secret guerrilla camp at Mount Paektu, a peak considered sacred to Koreans.
(Additional reporting by Sung-won Shim in Seoul and Alexei Anishchuk and Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa and Michael Roddy)