Kim 'joking' about axeing arms test

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The Independent Online

Kim Jong Il, the ruler of North Korea, confirmed his reputation as one of the world's least predictable leaders when he said he was joking when he offered to suspend his country's missile programme in return for foreign help starting a space programme.

Kim Jong Il, the ruler of North Korea, confirmed his reputation as one of the world's least predictable leaders when he said he was joking when he offered to suspend his country's missile programme in return for foreign help starting a space programme.

He made the proposal last month to the visiting Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who presented it at the G8 summit on the Japanese island of Okinawa. North Korea, he was given to believe, would stop testing intercontinental ballistic missiles if the United States would provide it with civilian rocket technology.

The proposal was used by Mr Putin to undermine US plans for a National Missile Defence system, a "mini-Star Wars" shield intended to prevent attacks by "rogue states" such as North Korea.

But on Saturday, at a meeting with South Korean media magnates in Pyongyang, Mr Kim admitted he was not serious. "I made this and other remarks regarding scientific technology research of rockets in a casual, laughing manner," he chortled in remarks reported in the South Korean media yesterday.

"Putin did not respond at that time but he later seized on it firmly and that's how it happened," Mr Kim said.

The meeting between Mr Kim and the South Korean executives came before a much-anticipated reunion of North and South Korean families separated for 50 years by the Cold War.

Two parties of Koreans, one hundred each from the North and South, travel to Seoul and Pyongyang this morning tomeet relatives they have not seen, spoken with, or written to since being trapped on different sides of the border during the 1950-53 war.

The participants include parents and children, brothers and sisters, and three married couples who were parted when they were in their twenties.

The meetings, a result of the summit in Pyongyang in June between President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Jong Il, are the latest in a number of measures which are designed to build confidence in the hope of reuniting the two Koreas. Yesterday the governments reopened liaison offices in Panmunjom, the one crossing point in the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula. The North Koreans closed their office in 1996 after a dispute about a northern spy submarine washed ashore in the South. Officials will man telephone links intended to allow co-ordination in case of crisis.

Kim Jong Il also said he was ready to reopen the rail link from Seoul through Pyongyang and into China. And he dismissed fears that North Korea may launch a surprise missile attack on the US. "Let's assume we develop the rockets, produce intercontinental ballistic missiles and fire two or three at the US," he was quoted as saying in yesterday's Korean newspapers. "Would we be able to win? The US is casting us in the role of a country which supports terrorism. If they should stop, we could establish [diplomatic] relations right away."

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