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All aboard the armored train: North Korea's Kim Jong Il visits Russia

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il toured a hydroelectric plant Sunday as his train traveled through Russia's Far East on his first visit to the Cold War-era ally in nine years.
Image: Kim Jong-Il
Women dressed in traditional Russian costumes welcome North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at Novobureisky, Russia, on Sunday.AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il toured a hydroelectric plant Sunday as his train traveled through Russia's Far East on his first visit to the Cold War-era ally in nine years.

Kim crossed into Russia on his armored train Saturday at the invitation of President Dmitry Medvedev, with the two leaders expected to meet later in the week to discuss the restart of nuclear disarmament talks and the construction of a pipeline that would stream Russian natural gas to North and South Korea.

Kim has sought help from regional powers in recent months for his impoverished nation, struggling with recent floods and economic sanctions. After reportedly securing Chinese food aid and investment in May, he is also likely to ask Russia for economic support.

The train stopped in the Russian border city of Khasan, where Kim was greeted by senior Russian officials, including Viktor Ishayev, presidential envoy to the Far East region of Russia, according to Russian and North Korean state news agencies.

Kim's train then continued west along the Trans-Siberian Railway, stopping briefly early Sunday at the Khabarovsk railway station. Television footage obtained by The Associated Press showed policemen with dogs checking the rails and blocking access to the platform as the train arrived.

Kim's visit to the Bureyskaya hydro-electric power station in Amur province, where he watched a film on the plant and toured its dam, has fuelled speculation that the two countries could discuss energy cooperation, South Korean news agency Yonhap Seoul reported on Sunday.

A regional news agency, PortAmur, posted photographs of Kim's visit, during which he signed a guest book and watched a film about the power plant, where construction was completed in 2009.

Kim wore his trademark Mao-style khaki jumpsuit, and in all but one of the photographs he is seen wearing dark sunglasses. He traded them for regular eyeglasses when presented with a framed picture as a gift.

RIA Novosti said Kim's train consists of 17 rail cars, plus four Russian cars that were added on in Khasan to transport Ishayev, who is traveling with Kim, and also Russian security guards and service personnel.

Kim told Russian officials that he was pleased to see the achievements of the Russian people and thanked them for warmly welcoming him, the official Korean Central News Agency reported from Pyongyang.

Image: Kim Jong Il boards armored train
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il enters his armoured carriage at the station of Novobureisky on August 21, 2011, 175 kilometers east from the town of Blagoveshchensk after a welcoming ceremony. Kim Jong-Il arrived in Russia on August 20, for his first visit in nearly a decade, reaching out to the giant neighbour as Pyongyang battles isolation and hunger. The reclusive Kim travelled in his armoured train, crossing Russia's Far Eastern border in the early hours and was due to hold talks with President Dmitry Medvedev later this week. During the rare, secrecy-shrouded visit, his first since 2002, the 69-year-old Kim is expected to tour Russia's Far East and Siberia for about a week. AFP PHOTO/ PORT AMUR AGENCY (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)AFP

Kim's visit to Russia comes amid signs that North Korea is increasing efforts to secure aid and restart stalled six-nation disarmament negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and other concessions.

Russia announced Friday that it was providing food assistance, including some 50,000 tons of wheat, to the North, which might face another food crisis this year due to heavy rains.

The 69-year-old Kim traveled to China in May in a trip seen by many as an attempt to secure aid, investment and support for a transfer of power to his youngest son Kim Jong Un. It was Kim's third visit to his country's closest ally in just over a year.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that Kim is now also seeking Russia's support for the father-to-son power transfer.

However, the younger Kim's name wasn't in the KCNA dispatch that listed top officials who were accompanying Kim on his Russia trip. Among the officials who were listed were defense chief Kim Yong Chun; Kang Sok Ju, Kim's key foreign policy adviser and vice premier; and Jang Song Thaek, Kim's brother-in-law and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.

Russian state news channel Rossiya 24 reported that Medvedev will meet Kim in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, a Buddhist province near Lake Baikal. Kim would have to travel about 1,860 miles on the Trans-Siberian Railway along the borders with China and Mongolia to reach Ulan-Ude from Khasan.

Yonhap said Kim's train left Amur for Ulan Ude later Sunday and his summit with Medvedev will take place Tuesday at an army base.

The Kremlin press service said Kim's trip, expected to last about a week, would take him into eastern Siberia and that a meeting with Medvedev would be the main event of his visit. No other details have been released.

Kim last visited Russia in 2002, a four-day trip limited to the Far East. A year earlier, however, he made a 24-day train trek across the country to Moscow and back.