North Korea can cut military force: Russia’s Sergeyev

TOKYO, Reuters

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said on Wednesday that North Korea could afford to cut its 1.2 million strong military given signs of a reduction in tension in the divided Korean peninsula.

Sergeyev made the remarks in a meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.

“It is highly possible that North Korea could reduce its military,” Sergeyev was quoted by a Japanese official as telling Kono. “There are signs of easing tensions in the Korean peninsula.”

He urged Japan and other Asian neighbors to hold talks with North Korea to try to bring peace and stability to the heavily militarized peninsula. Sergeyev was speaking on the second day of a three-day visit.

Kono told Sergeyev that military tensions seem to have eased between the North and South since the historic summit in June, when the two nations agreed to work for reconciliation and eventual reunification.

In a sign of warming ties, military officials from North and South Korea pledged on Tuesday to cooperate on building road and railway links across their heavily militarized border.

The two countries remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armed truce rather than a peace accord.

In Singapore on Monday, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had dropped Pyongyang’s long-held insistence on a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South when the two met in Pyongyang in June.

The communist North has recently launched a diplomatic initiative to end its Cold War isolation in a move analysts believe is aimed at securing badly needed economic aid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea in July, heralding Moscow’s attempts to revive ties with Pyongyang which ended during the Soviet era.

His visit brought the first news of a possible deal in which North Korea would end its long-range missile program in return for Western assistance in launching its satellites.

Russia has said it expects the North Korean leader to visit Moscow next year.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Sergeyev reiterated that Russia plans to slash its forces in its Far East and Siberia regions by 20 percent.

But he said Moscow had no plans to reduce its military presence in central Asia because of security concerns due mainly to the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban group.

“We must concentrate our military in central Asia because of military instability caused by the Taliban and others,” Sergeyev was quoted as saying.

Earlier on Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told Sergeyev he would try to visit Russia at an early date.

Mori met Putin this month on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Brunei, and they agreed to meet again in the Russian city of Irkutsk near Lake Baikal possibly by the end of this year to try to make progress on a World War Two peace treaty.

But a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official told Japanese public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday that Mori’s visit to Russia would not take place until the first quarter of next year.