North Korean leader Kim Jong-il rumbled on to Moscow in a trans-Siberian train Sunday amid reports that he has struck a new military agreement with Russia, which would accordingly refuse U.S. demands to pressure Pyongyang over its missile program.
Kim’s bullet-proof green carriage and an army of staff, ranging from doctors and cooks to servants and steely men toting machine-guns, experienced an unexplained delay on their 10-day voyage after leaving the hilly wilderness of Chita.
Their train was preceded by one equipped for sweeping mines.
The reclusive Stalinist leader is expected to make a brief stop-over in the former Soviet military outpost of Irkutsk at around 11:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) before finally stepping off his mystery train in the city of Omsk, where he is scheduled to visit a tank factory.
That visit on Tuesday — if the media is allowed to catch a peek — could offer the world a rare glimpse of how Kim, 59, behaves in public, especially when he attends a concert thrown in his honor later in the day.
But people are likely to learn even more when Kim meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Saturday as the two sign a series of joint, but still officially secret, documents.
On his first formal visit to Europe, Kim is expected to reach Moscow’s Yaroslavskoye’s train station late on Friday.
Although Putin is seeking to impose Russia’s flagging influence on the volatile Korean peninsula — a key element in the Russia-U.S. missile defense dispute — Kim’s trip here has been repeatedly postponed because of arguments over Pyongyang’s Soviet-era debts to Moscow.
In exchange for cooperation, Kim was demanding weapons, including sensitive S-300 ground-to-air missiles along with warships and fighter jets, and even free energy supplies.
But Moscow offered nothing until Kim this month agreed to pay up 5.5 billion U.S. dollars over the next 30 years.
Now sources say that, the dispute having been solved, arms talks are back on.
“Kim embarked on a Russia trip after Moscow accepted his request” for new weapons, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited a local government source as saying.
And while a senior Russian official conceded that North Korea’s controversial missile program “could be discussed” during Kim’s Moscow visit, he appeared to rule out any formal declaration against the program.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said on Saturday that the issue primarily concerned “bilateral relations between North Korea and the United States.”
Only hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while on his tour of Asia, called on Putin to pressure Kim on his missile program once the Moscow summit finally gets under way.
North Korea, declared a “rogue state” by Washington, is cited a primary example for why Washington plans to forge ahead with construction of a missile defense shield — despite all of Russia’s qualms.
But Losyukov’s comments appeared to be a direct response to Powell’s request to persuade Pyongyang to drop its missile program.
Instead, Moscow and Pyongyang will seal a new arms deal, the unnamed South Korean official said.