Russians warm to Korea's trans-Siberian Kim

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The Independent Online

One of the world's strangest journeys came to an end yesterday when Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean leader, met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, following a nine-day railway trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway that captured the Russian imagination.

Mr Putin congratulated the North Korean leader on finally reaching Moscow and said he now knew Russia "better than some Russian politicians". Mr Kim said that he was one of the first people to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Trans-Siberian by travelling on it.

Mr Kim later emerged into Red Square to lay wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the mausoleum housing the embalmed body of Lenin, to which a guard of honour has been temporarily restored.

In his talks with Mr Kim, Mr Putin will pledge economic assistance to help modernise the North Korean economy. But the real interest of the talks is the small North Korean missile force. Russian military experts have said the missiles are based on obsolete Soviet technology from the 1960s, but the US insists that the potential for a missile threat from North Korea is enough to justify building a missile shield.

Mr Kim's trip across Russia has been extraordinarily successful in terms of making Russians and the rest of the world aware that the 59-year-old North Korean leader exists.

The air of mystery surrounding the 21-coach armoured train, and Mr Kim's refusal to let the media near him, is in sharp contrast to the contrived cordiality of Mr Putin's meetings with President George Bush and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. One Russian tabloid even published a photograph claiming that it showed Mr Kim's train had been shot at.

Mr Kim is staying in the same rooms in the Kremlin as those previously occupied by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but his mammoth train journey has earned him far more publicity than their visits.

Mr Putin will want present himself as an interlocutor with North Korea, which he visited last year. But he will not want to be so friendly that he angers the US, as Russia cannot afford a renewal of the arms race. He will, therefore, be chary of offering Mr Kim much military equipment – which, in any case, North Korea is unable to pay for.

Mr Kim is scheduled to visit space facilities around Moscow today before continuing his train journey to St Petersburg.

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