North Korean leader tells Russia he is ready to halt nuclear tests

Pyongyang is ready to suspend its nuclear missile tests if international talks on its atomic programme resume, a spokesman for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after his rare meeting yesterday with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong il.

Mr Kim and Mr Medvedev met at a hotel in a military base near the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, a predominantly Buddhist province near Lake Baikal. It was Mr Kim's first trip to Russia since 2002.

The six-nation nuclear talks involving North Korea and the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have been stalled since December 2008. But faced with deepening sanctions and economic trouble, North Korea is pushing to restart them. The US and South Korea insist that the North must halt its nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, before the talks reopen. Russian news agencies reported that Mr Kim said his country was ready to resume talks "without preconditions".

Mr Medvedev said Russia and North Korea had also moved forward on a proposal to ship natural gas to South Korea through a pipeline across North Korea. The North had long been reluctant about the prospect of helping its industrial powerhouse arch-enemy increase its gas supply, but has recently shown interest in the project.

The South wants Russian energy but is wary of North Korean influence over its supply.

Mr Kim also visited the statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and dropped by a local supermarket. Mr Medvedev greeted Mr Kim, who stepped out of an armoured Mercedes limousine saying he was "having a fun trip". Mr Kim was expected to return to North Korea in the armoured, blast-proof train he customarily uses for trips abroad. But Mr Kim's special train was seen heading toward eastern Siberia instead of Mongolia later yesterday, said the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

The itinerary for Mr Kim's visit has been largely kept secret due to security worries.